FIRST minister Alex Salmond yesterday called for an official inquiry into a reported Treasury briefing to the BBC about Royal Bank of Scotland’s plans to move its headquarters to England.
While answering questions about news that some of Scotland’s financial institutions were considering registering in England in the event of a Yes vote, the First Minister demanded an investigation into the relationship between the UK government and the BBC.
Mr Salmond claimed that the Treasury had briefed the BBC with “market-sensitive information” about RBS and the Yes campaign had been the victim of “bullying and intimidation” by the Westminster government.
In a tetchy exchange with the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson, Mr Salmond accused the broadcast journalist of heckling him when he tried to ask him about the economic impact of the RBS move.
Mr Salmond was challenged over the Scottish banks moving to “re-domicile” some parts of the banks in the event of independence at a press conference that was called for the “international media”.
In front of foreign journalists, who were outnumbered by Yes supporters who had also been invited to the event at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, Mr Salmond dismissed economic concerns.
Mr Salmond said that the banks’ plans only amounted to moving their “brass plaques” and did not include moving their operations or jobs from Scotland. He read out a letter from the RBS chief executive Ross McEwan to back up his argument as he also claimed that Scotland stood on the “cusp of history” and that Yes would win a “significant majority”.
Despite journalists from beyond the UK wanting to tackle Mr Salmond on Galician fishing rights in Scottish waters, Basque self-determination and Quebec referenda, the First Minister was unable to escape questions on Scottish financial institutions.
Robinson asked Mr Salmond if he really thought RBS’s decision had “no consequences”. The journalist also pointed out that John Lewis had warned prices would rise after independence and BP had warned that oil would run out.
“Why should Scottish voters believe you – a politician against men who are responsible for billions of pounds?” Robinson asked. At this point, one of the Yes supporters shouted out: “Why should they believe a biased BBC?”
Mr Salmond replied by saying that corporation-tax take did not depend on where the registered office or “brass plaque” was, but depended on where the bank’s economic activity was.
He then dismissed warnings from Standard Life that investments could move south with a Yes vote and statements from Shell and BP in favour of Scotland remaining in the UK.
“I know this might be news to some of the metropolitan media, but the warnings that were released yesterday were actually recycling things from months ago,” Mr Salmond said.
The First Minister then drew the assembled media’s attention to what he said was the “most interesting matter”.
Mr Salmond said a Treasury source had “told the BBC that it had discussed the plans with the Royal Bank of Scotland”.
“This is a matter of extraordinary gravity,” he added.
“I have always respected journalistic right to maintain and respect sources.
“But I know that the BBC will want to co-operate with the inevitable investigation by the Cabinet Secretary of the briefing of this information.
Mr Salmond has written to the Prime Minister demanding an explanation for the Treasury’s “deliberate attempt to cause uncertainty in the financial markets”, and called on Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood to investigate why “a Treasury source” discussed RBS plans with the BBC several hours before it was announced to the markets.
Last night, a Treasury source said it had simply responded on Wednesday night to a journalist seeking to follow up a newspaper story.
A BBC spokeswoman said: “The story in question was accurate and BBC News exercised normal editorial judgments.”