Brian Wilson: True cost of media manipulation

Happier times: Alex Salmond and Donald Trump in New York in 2006
Happier times: Alex Salmond and Donald Trump in New York in 2006
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THE Trump affair emphasises that it is time to question the role of the government’s special advisers, writes Brian Wilson.

It was revealed last week that there are now 13 special advisers employed by the devolved Government at an annual cost of almost £1 million, making this the only growth area in the Scottish public sector.

Special advisers, for the benefit of the non-cognoscenti, are neither fish nor fowl. They are party activists who are paid from the public purse. They are supposedly bound by civil service rules, but regard themselves as licensed by their political masters to behave as they please, so long as they don’t get caught.

They are a breed which the political process could largely do without, whoever is in power. It is one thing to have a handful of trusted colleagues – there were three in Donald Dewar’s day – on whom ministers can rely for political advice. But it is ridiculous to have a £1 million public pay-roll to fund a political cadre at Holyrood which exists largely for the purpose of partisan news management.

The most recent example of what special advisers get up to is contained in the extraordinary story of the bogus “letter”, written by the man who is now Alex Salmond’s chief of staff, one Geoff Aberdein, and which Donald Trump was expected to sign in return, quite explicitly according to his entourage, for services rendered by the First Minister.

Rarely can there have been a more apposite use of the term “when thieves fall out…” than the aftermath to the ungainly Salmond-Trump love-in. It is a measure of how much in their debt Salmond and his henchmen believed Trump to be that they put forward such an audacious proposal – a presumption that begs its own questions

Trump, the American idol, was seriously expected to declare his support for the release of Megrahi, the only man convicted of the mass murder of American citizens over Lockerbie. As a fall-back, Aberdein then sought to attribute to him the unctuous reassurance: “In any event, it won’t stop my love affair with Scotland and the Scots”.

But it got worse. Purely for the purpose of covering Salmond’s back, Aberdein scripted the following for Trump to put his name to: “Too many Scottish soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan for the head of the FBI to lecture Scots on fighting terrorism”. And remember, this individual who thought fit to invoke dead Scottish soldiers as pawns in his political game was not just a Nationalist zealot on the loose. He was being paid from the public purse and acting on behalf of the First Minister of Scotland.

Then it got worse again. Instead of taking no for an answer, Salmond got on the blower to the Trump inner circle – though it seems he could not get through to the great man himself. According to George Soriel, who has been Trump’s front-man throughout the Menie saga, Salmond “was very unhappy and demanded to speak to Mr Trump. He was demanding and insisted he had helped us and now it was time to help him”.

Is this really the way we want Scotland to be run, with shadowy figures falsifying statements for public figures to put their names to and the First Minister demanding a return of favours? There are plenty such stories which are currently whispered rather than told – and Donald Trump’s greatest service to Scotland will be if his decision to expose one unsavoury episode emboldens others to relate their own experiences.

But let us get back to the platoon of special advisers and their primary function, which is media manipulation. As a case study, I make no apology for revisiting the SNP government’s decision to reduce bursaries to Scottish students from the least well-off backgrounds by up to £1,000 a year, but not to announce that they had done so – a tawdry act of concealment which has now, I hope, backfired on them.

On 22 August, the Scottish Government issued a press release headed: “UK’s best student support package”, which intimated that “an annual minimum income” of £7,250 would be available to low-income students. What it did not say was that in order to achieve this figure, students from low-income families would borrow several thousand pounds more over the duration of their courses in order to compensate for a swingeing cut of up to 30 per cent in bursary.

Both as a politician and as a journalist, I have had many years of dealing with government press officers and I do not believe for one moment that, acting on their own initiative, the press office at St Andrew’s House would have either initiated or volunteered to collude in such an act of misrepresentation. In order to present neutral, factual information – which is the job of the civil service – there was a clear obligation to set the two facts alongside one another. Permitted borrowing was to increase and bursaries were to be reduced. Competing points of view could then have been debated. The minister was entitled to argue that the benefits of increased borrowings outweighed the disadvantages of bursary cuts. Others would have disputed this and people could then form their own judgment. The attempt – successful until last week – to prevent that discussion by simply not announcing the bursary cut was contemptible.

But who was responsible for it? Ultimately, I’m afraid, it was the Scottish Government press office which issued that misleading release which is not to its credit. But it would tell us a lot about the way this outfit operates if we could access all of the communications – involving ministers, special advisers and civil servants – which led up to this deliberate decision to deceive. That is what Freedom of Information should be about, but isn’t.

Last week, it was revealed that 230 Scottish Government press officers and civil servants are to be merged into a new Communications Directorate. It is difficult to believe the purpose of this is other than to tighten political control over the whole machine and gear its messages to the SNP’s agenda in the run-up to the referendum. I have no doubt that the 13 special advisers will see themselves as significant cogs.

And that brings me to Sir Peter Housden, Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government and widely regarded as a wholly-owned Salmond subsidiary. Sir Peter’s eagerness to please ministers is well-known, but he needs to be reminded of his duty of care to fellow civil servants. Quite a few of them would be grateful if he started to exercise it – for there is plenty of pressure on them from the other direction, and there is going to be more.