The First Minister cannot simply wash his hands of his attempts to court Rupert Murdoch, writes Brian Wilson
When in a tight corner, Alex Salmond has an interesting technique of issuing soundbites which respond to allegations that nobody was making, in order to declare the matter closed.
Maybe, in the light of recent experience, Scotland’s broadcasters will get wise to that ploy and start denying him the 20-second platforms he adores. Answer real questions or don’t get your mug on the telly should be the maxim for any politician.
When news broke of the Murdoch e-mails, Salmond summoned the cameras to announce with due solemnity: “The reality is that I never phoned or wrote to Jeremy Hunt on this issue.”
Cut to the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger modulation before assuring the anxious nation: “I’m afraid that the conspiracy theory falls at the first hurdle.” Soundbite over. Matter closed.
Or maybe, in this instance, not. Nobody, of course, had claimed that he personally “phoned or wrote to Jeremy Hunt”, so he was at his old trick of not telling the truth without quite telling a lie. And there was no need for a conspiracy theory. Facts, as we say in the guid Scots tongue, are chiels that winna ding.
The most immediate fact is that, though he didn’t phone Jeremy Hunt to lobby on Murdoch’s behalf, it wasn’t for want of trying. According to a parliamentary reply, Salmond’s office called Hunt’s on 3 March last year in an effort to set up a call between the two men, “and again a number of times over the following days”. So much for “the first hurdle”.
On that day, Hunt had announced his decision to overrule the Competition Commission in order to allow the Murdoch bid for full control of BSkyB to go ahead. There was then a period of consultation which was to last just 15 days. Hunt was therefore acting in a quasi-judicial role, while Salmond was repeatedly trying to make contact with him in order to lobby privately for the Murdoch interest.
Speculating on Salmond’s political motives would indeed take us into “conspiracy theory” territory since it is impossible to prove causal connections and pointless to try. Suffice to say that, with polling day just two months away, Salmond might reasonably have believed that his behind-the-scenes activity on Murdoch’s behalf could only strengthen bonds which were already established.
Anyway, much more shameful than what Salmond hoped to get out of his efforts was the cause that he sought to lobby for – and this is the substantial issue which has been largely overlooked. Forget the guff about safeguarding Scottish jobs, the original presence and subsequent retention of which had nothing to do with Salmond or his manoeuvrings. And if jobs were Salmond’s priority, he would not have been shy about saying so.
The blunt fact is that Salmond was signed up by Murdoch to lobby for the precise antithesis of what every liberally minded believer in a diverse media wanted to see – in the words of Robert Peston at the time, “a combined News Corp and BSkyB (which) would dwarf all rivals, even the BBC”. No wonder Salmond was going about this dirty work by stealth. There were no soundbites on that subject and certainly no statements in Holyrood.
In the words of James Murdoch, the purpose of the proposed deal was to make News International/BSkyB “the epicentre of digital journalism”. This is what Salmond was supporting in his position as First Minister of Scotland. Yet he neglected to tell the people of Scotland or its elected parliament what he was up to. He acted on no authority other than his own well-cultivated association with Murdoch.
These are serious abuses of power which Holyrood must try to call him to account for. While both Hunt and David Cameron have been hauled before the House of Commons, there has been no such set piece at Holyrood. It may be that the Presiding Officer is a feeble placewoman who would reject any effort to force Salmond into facing questions on this or any other matter, but at least the combined opposition parties should put her to the test. If not on this, then on what?
Of course, the BSkyB deal fell through once the phone-hacking scandal – which was already well known and extensive on 3 March last year – became uncontainable and the scale of criminal conspiracy at News International began to emerge. The hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone came to epitomise the evil that pervaded Murdoch’s empire, and the emperor has slowly been stripped of his aura.
It is true that most party leaders had sought to court Murdoch over the previous 40 years. Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock resisted that temptation, and what happened to them was enough to encourage their successors to swallow the poison pill. The SNP’s own close association with the Murdoch press goes back to the Sun’s push for Scottish sales in the 1980s.
All very demeaning – though however much one may look down one’s nose at these associations, it can be argued that they were a product of realpolitik. And crucially, they happened in an era when the Murdoch press was widely regarded as amoral and malign, but when there was no suggestion that it was also engaged in a criminal conspiracy to invade privacy on an industrial scale. The idea that attitudes towards Murdoch pre and post-Milly Dowler should be judged by the same criteria is not credible.
Salmond’s decision to greet Murdoch at Bute House earlier this year when the old baron was at his lowest ebb was an act of calculated bravura. Salmond had come to believe his own publicity as the Teflon man who could get away with anything. So what a masterstroke – be the last politician on earth prepared to greet Murdoch on his own terms, brush aside any domestic criticism and thus solidify a relationship which would bring its continuing rewards laced with gratitude.
And it all went according to plan – until last week when the e-mail trail started to unfold, and with it the extent of his relationship with Murdoch. The last line of defence was that there was “no evidence of phone-hacking in Scotland”. But even that looks a bit hollow now we know that Jack McConnell’s phone (like those of several other Scottish politicians) was being hacked. In Salmond’s moral compass, does it really matter where the hacking equipment was located?
In the face of most available evidence, a significant proportion of Scotland’s chattering classes have managed to persuade themselves that Salmond is some colossus of a New Scottish Enlightenment rather than a vulgar poujadist who lobbies for Murdoch and spends too much time courting the rich and powerful. They may now start to reflect on whether the good fruit of a better Scotland is likely to grow from such a tree.