If the First Minister intends to keep back facts on phone-hacking, he’s not fit to hold his office, writes Brian Monteith
The First Minister has stumbled into dangerous territory. It had all gone so well. After months of speculation about the possibility that Alex Salmond’s mobile phone voicemails had been illegally accessed by the Murdoch press and demands for a separate Scottish inquiry to establish the evidence of such dirty tricks, the First Minister threw a curve ball that no-one could master.
No, his phone had not been hacked, but he believed his bank account had, he told the Leveson inquiry. As if this was not surprising enough, the real twist was that as the corroborating information came from a journalist belonging to the Observer, part of the Guardian Media Group and chief protagonist of News International’s tactics. It would appear that paper was responsible – thus putting Murdoch’s sanctimonious critics in the full glare of public scrutiny.
It really did seem a master stroke; yet again Mr Salmond had confounded his critics who had put hope before experience by thinking he would come a cropper under the close questioning of a QC and Leveson himself.
Now all the First Minister had to do was come back to Scotland, lodge a formal complaint with Strathclyde Police, who are investigating phone hacking by the media in Scotland, and the plague would be on all media titles rather than just the late News of the World, the Sun, the Times and the Sunday Times. Rupert Murdoch might have been tempted to phone the First Minister for one of his private friendly chats and congratulate him on such a brilliant manoeuvre.
That was how it looked on Friday, but by Saturday the First Minister’s spokesman was saying that Mr Salmond would not be lodging any formal complaint with the police – as that might require him to reveal his journalistic source.
However, by Sunday reporters had found a communication from the First Minister to the UK Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, insisting that any evidence brought to light through Leveson which falls within Scottish jurisdiction should be given to the Scottish police. Suddenly the ploy of wrong-footing his opponents was looking decidedly dodgy, if not plain wrong.
Let me put this in chronological order.
In 1999 Alex Salmond, then an MP, establishes from the detail that is relayed to him by an Observer journalist that someone had gained access to his bank account who was either in the pay of that newspaper or working independently and then sold it on to the publication. He does not tell the police of this potentially criminal act but keeps it to himself.
Later, after he becomes First Minister, the phone hacking scandal erupts and in 2011 he writes to Jeremy Hunt complaining about evidence being withheld.
He is asked in public many, many times about his phone being hacked and about the need for a separate Scottish inquiry into illegal media practices – acts that had targeted his predecessor First Minister Jack McConnell. He does not take the opportunity to reveal his bank account had probably been hacked, instead he says he will reveal all at his forthcoming appearance at Leveson.
That appearance takes place where he alleges media criminality and complains that the Metropolitan Police may have withheld evidence from Strathclyde Police – but on returning to Scotland refuses to lodge a complaint with investigators.
Am I missing something here or is it normal behaviour for a parliamentarian to withhold knowledge of a possible crime from the police? Is it custom and practice for a minister, the First Minister at that, to play fast and loose with our justice system for the sake of dominating the headlines? I find this very odd behaviour. It is not as if the journalist in question, whoever that is, is being accused of being the person who hacked the bank account, although if he or she was “I was only following orders” is not a defence or an excuse.
Over the past few months we have had private investigators working for the media, journalists working for a wide variety of papers, editors and owners of many titles, being hauled before Leveson and giving evidence under oath. If that has not compromised their journalistic code of not revealing sources enough, we have not just had e-mails but private texts between editors, publishers and ministers of the Crown, including the Prime Minister, presented before us.
The First Minister of Scotland, however, thinks it is his job to shield one member of the press in Scotland who might expose the lengths to which the media has been breaking the law, because of some unwritten and unlegislated gentleman’s agreement. I have absolutely no reason to doubt the veracity of the First Minister’s allegation about his bank account, but on current evidence it looks as if Mr Salmond has withheld knowledge of a possible crime because, at best, he thought it unimportant, and at worst, he wanted to use it to his advantage.
The First Minister would have to be a fool not to recognise the seriousness of the alleged crime and realise it should be brought to the attention of the police – if not in 1999 then certainly now when there is an investigation into such media practices. As the First Minister is no fool I can only conclude that he has wilfully withheld knowledge of this alleged crime for political advantage.
That would be no way for any MSP to behave and it certainly cannot be the example that a First Minister should set to the public. Alex Salmond has a duty to uphold the law. By his own actions he appears to have avoided reporting a possible crime and now, having alleged that crime, intends to withhold evidence pertinent to the scope of existing police enquiries.
If that is how the First Minister treats his office, then I must conclude that he is unfit to hold such a post and should resign. It really is that serious. Mr Salmond must either provide every piece of evidence he has to Strathclyde Police or he and his government cannot be taken seriously again on matters judicial. As government acts within, through and by the law that must mean the whole government is culpable. Having put up, he cannot shut up. The First Minister must come clean, or go.