Euan McColm: Salmond’s gift to Putin wasn’t long in coming

Megrahi, left, holds the hand of Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafis son, Seif al-Islam, on his arrival in Tripoli in 2009. 
Picture: Getty
Megrahi, left, holds the hand of Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafis son, Seif al-Islam, on his arrival in Tripoli in 2009. Picture: Getty
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When former first minister Alex Salmond last month announced the launch of his new current affairs show on Kremlin propaganda channel RT, he was adamant there would be no undue influence on his editorial independence.

Critics of his decision had quite understandably pointed out that the network – previously known as Russia Today – was established with the express purpose of pushing the agenda of President Vladimir Putin’s repressive regime, but Salmond was quick to defend his own integrity. Anyone who feared he was about to be horribly compromised by appearing on the channel should watch the show, he said, and make up their own minds whether he had made a mistake (this watch and decide option was also available to those who believed Salmond had made the most colossally cynical decision in the name of self-promotion).

We’ve now had the chance to watch a handful of episodes of the Alex Salmond Show– if we’ve chosen to tune in to a news station funded by a regime with a record of the brutal oppression of free speech. The most recent will have troubled those who harbour concerns about Salmond’s judgment.

In 2009, while Salmond was first minister, his justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, took the decision to release the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, on compassionate grounds.

Terminally ill with cancer, Megrahi was sent home to Libya amid huge controversy. You may remember the remarkable press conference where MacAskill announced his decision. It was now for a higher power to judge Megrahi, said the politician who “doesn’t do religion” using a cadence that evoked the sound of a child reading out a poem in front of the class. Megrahi enjoyed three years of freedom before the illness finally claimed him.

On Thursday, MacAskill appeared on Salmond’s show to pick over the bones of a decision that still firmly divides opinion.

It was hardly surprising when MacAskill made the case that the Scottish Government had been criticised for releasing Megrahi when it had only done what the UK government wanted. The key difference, of course (because the SNP would never sully itself by indulging in tawdry, compromise-dependent realpolitik) was that MacAskill had sent Megrahi home for the right reason while the UK government wished his release for the wrong one – according to the former justice secretary, an oil deal (is there a greater signifier of political evil than the willingness to act in the interests of maintaining a steady supply of this vital commodity?). While he was handing over responsibility for Megrahi’s future to that unspecified higher power, the UK and US governments were “double dealing”, he added.

It is, surely, nothing more than a happy coincidence that MacAskill’s narrative of malign intentions by Britain and America will have been greeted with delight inside the Kremlin. What good fortune for the Russians that a guest on the Alex Salmond Show should wish to allege grave impropriety on the part of the very nations Putin wishes to destabilise.

While MacAskill concerned himself solely with the awfulness of Britain and the States, Salmond had more to say on the matter of Megrahi.

While he was first minister, Salmond’s government may have stood behind Megrahi’s conviction for planting the bomb that killed 259 people aboard Pan Am Flight 103 and 11 people in the village of Lockerbie on 21 December, 1988, but now, free from the constraints of office and absolutely not serving the interests of his Russian paymasters, he has more to say on the matter.

The evidence used to convict Megrahi was “open to question”, Salmond told his viewers. In a prolonged monologue, Salmond picked at Megrahi’s conviction (and, by extension, at the British and American justice systems). Megrahi has been a high-ranking Libyan intelligence official at the time of the Lockerbie bombing and this supported the charge that he was acting with others as part of a wider conspiracy, said Salmond, but his conviction was based on identification evidence that was “to say the very least, open to question”.

It is worth quoting in full what came next. “Throughout this period,” said Salmond, “the British government of first Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown was secretly acting to promote Mr Megrahi’s release and not on the grounds of compassion or justice, but for trade, for big business and for oil. Such is State hypocrisy.”

This must have been the sweetest song to the ears of RT executives.

Ah, but, you may say, there is nothing much surprising about Salmond wishing to undermine the British state. It has, after all, been his life’s work to do just that. Were the programme appearing on the BBC, he’d surely be launching the same attacks. But there’s a difference when he does it on RT.

Salmond and his business partner, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, are paid by a Kremlin-funded propaganda machine to produce content that, at times, by chance, looks like the sort of thing President Putin might have personally approved. We can jig about, spouting weasel words about media bias and Salmond’s independence of mind but it is simply impossible to know about Russian efforts to influence the US election and the EU referendum vote and conclude that the former first minister isn’t entirely in the wrong here.

Former colleagues – many of whom secretly prayed for his defeat in June’s general election – grow increasingly exasperated with Salmond. First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, would, I am certain, have preferred not to have had to approve a statement in which the Scottish Government re-affirmed its faith in Megrahi’s conviction.

That response won’t matter a whit to RT, which now has eminently shareable clips of Salmond chipping away at the integrity of UK and US security services.

When he landed the RT slot, Alex Salmond insisted he would not be dictated to when it came to subject matter. Vladimir Putin may reflect that such an intervention would have been entirely unnecessary.