When Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced recently that two neo Nazi groups would be banned under UK terror laws, it is fair to say that the name Scottish Dawn was new to most people. But myself and my colleagues at investigative website the Ferret know them well: our journalists spent seven months infiltrating Scottish Dawn.
The story began earlier this year when Scottish Dawn appeared publicly at far-right rallies in Scotland for the first time. It was shortly after National Action became the first far-right group to be proscribed under anti-terrorism legislation. National Action supporters have been found guilty of racially motivated attempted murder, and arrested amid fears of plots to target individuals. They also celebrated the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox.
Scottish Dawn clearly aped National Action. Their bright yellow banners advocated “blood and soil” and “defending our country”. But the group also had a self-consciously Scottish tinge: where many Scottish neo-Nazis would wave the union flag, Scottish Dawn carried the Saltire. In promo clips, Scottish Dawn declared “Alba gu bràth” (‘Scotland Forever’) and aligned themselves to the far-right Identitarian movement across Europe.
Infiltrating a neo-Nazi group isn’t easy. Since the Ferret launched as an investigative journalism website in 2015 we had covered the far-right, but we had never gone undercover with one of these groups. For this investigation – as with others – one of our senior directors, Billy Briggs, worked with a young reporter, Jamie Mann.
The first step was to gain access to Scottish Dawn. This took time. We’d been in talks with National Action, who’d suggested a meeting, but they went underground after being banned. So Mann – working under an alias with false ID – contacted Scottish Dawn through their website (which, surprisingly, is still live at the time of writing). After talking online and attending the same far-right rallies, a meeting was arranged.
In an upmarket Edinburgh pub, far right activists “Fraser” and “John” – not their real names – told our reporter that Scottish Dawn was linked to National Action. “Basically there are some members in the group that were in National Action. It’s kind of hard to talk about it because it’s a prescribed [sic] terrorist organisation.”
He added: “National Action were a good organisation and the stuff we [Scottish Dawn] do is very similar.”
The link between National Action and Scottish Dawn is crucial. Both Scottish Dawn and NS131 (National Socialist Anti-Capitalist Action) have been identified as aliases of National Action. Announcing the ban on the two groups, Rudd said she would not allow National Action to “masquerade under different names”. As of 29 September, being a member – or inviting support for – Scottish Dawn will be a criminal offence, carrying a sentence of up to ten years’ imprisonment.
The decision to proscribe Scottish Dawn comes three months after the Ferret published its investigation into the group, in tandem with the Daily Record. This was the longest investigation that the Ferret has worked on, but by no means the only one – we have run hundreds of stories over the past two years.
The success of the Scottish Dawn probe shows the potential of new media outlets to produce in-depth, hard-hitting public interest journalism. The Ferret is a co-operative – which means that it is owned by readers, not shareholders. Everyone who subscribes to the Ferret, which costs £3 a month, becomes a member of the co-operative, getting voting rights and access to exclusive content.
Since being created by a small group of mainly freelance investigative journalists, the Ferret has added hundreds of new members. Some have become active members of our community, attending regular public events. On Saturday 7 October, we will hold our autumn conference in Glasgow, with a focus on transparency and fact-checking. Earlier this year, the Ferret Fact Service (FFS – geddit?) was launched, backed by a grant from Google’s Digital News Initiative.
The Ferret’s model is essentially the antithesis of click bait. There is no advertising, and no pressure on writers to publish daily. Rather than pay per click, all journalists are paid a set daily rate per story to “nose up the trousers of power”. This way of working is not opaque to our audience but made explicit. Every quarter the Ferret publishes transparency reports that tell subscribers – and everyone else – exactly how much money was spent, and on what.
The Ferret’s co-operative approach is not a panacea to the problems of funding journalism. Most of the editorial work is done by a core team of journalists who still often work pro-bono. Resources and time are limited. But as the Scottish Dawn investigation shows, independent investigative journalism is not only worth supporting, it can help bring about real change, too.
Peter Geoghegan is a director of the Ferret