Alex Salmond case sparks outbreak of contempt – John McLellan

People on social media don’t seem to realise they are subject to the Contempt of Court Act, as demonstrated after former First Minister Alex Salmond was arrested and charged, writes John McLellan.

Alex Salmond faces charges of attempted rape and sexual assault (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)
Alex Salmond faces charges of attempted rape and sexual assault (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire)

The warning from police on Thursday morning was crystal clear: “Proceedings are now live under the contempt of court act.” They were of course referring to the expected blizzard of coverage to follow the announcement that ex-First Minister Alex Salmond had been arrested and would be appearing in court later in the day.

Once it was known that he faced 14 charges in all, two of them of attempted rape, hundreds of people did exactly what was expected; completely ignored the police directions and piled in on social media with a blizzard of comments which, had they been made in mainstream publications or broadcasts, would have seen the editors forming an orderly queue outside the High Court yesterday morning.

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Even writing this, with no comment whatsoever on the charges Mr Salmond faces, runs a risk and a lawyer will have had a look before publication, yet in the lawless Wild West of social media those people sharing gags with their followers over the past few days are unlikely to receive an unexpected visit from a Sheriff’s officer brandishing a summons.

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Alex Salmond charged with attempted rape and sexual assault

But every major outlet yesterday ran a risk of breaching the contempt laws yesterday just by publishing Mr Salmond’s picture because publishing photos of accused people is frowned upon by the Scottish courts. It is not simply a technical matter which is never enforced, as the Daily Record, Scottish Sun and STV found out in 2007 when their coverage of an assault charge faced by Derek Riordan was accompanied by the Hibs striker’s picture. The Shetland Times was also fined in 2015 for publishing a photograph of a local man facing trial. The Record appealed against its conviction and lost, but the judges observed that only in rare cases would a name instantly conjure up an image. As probably the most famous man in Scotland, Mr Salmond probably passes that test.

The Twitter and Facebook comments are another matter but, like speeding, if every breach over the past few days was prosecuted the Procurator Fiscal would be swamped. So nothing will happen, but it does reflect an inconsistent application of the law where prosecution relies on the prominence of the alleged offender. At least everyone getting behind the wheel of a car knows they are driving and has passed a test, people posting thoughts on Facebook don’t necessarily understand they are publishers and Contempt of Court applies to them too.

Never mind social media and the internet, when the Contempt of Court Act was passed in 1981 plenty of people didn’t even have access to a landline and most over 40s will remember queueing up outside a phone box clutching a 2p piece, yet the law remains unchanged.

Recognising a world in which everyone with a mobile phone is a publisher and broadcaster, in other words all of us, in 2015 then Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland argued for a review but his successor James Wolffe is less enthusiastic. The police warning this week is unlikely to be the last, and surely an analogue law needs to be brought into the digital age.

Jobs at arms length don’t count?

Digital advertising and marketing now dominates communication, despite doubts about its effectiveness compared to tried-and-tested methods like print, TV, radio and billboards. As a result, digital targets are important in measuring the success of organisations like Marketing Edinburgh (ME).

Through the This is Edinburgh platform, ME has generated 435,000 social media followers and has 11,800 subscribers to its eNews service, and its digital support for the city council’s 2050 Vision project has helped raise £450,000 worth of support.

All of this and a lot more are now at risk because of the probable loss of 64 per cent of its income because of the council administration’s decision to withdraw its grant over the next two years. If the planned £500,000 cut this year is implemented, then five of its 19 staff will be laid off in March and the company will be wound up in the autumn. We now know that officers planned a smaller reduction to allow ME to raise more income, but the SNP-Labour councillors over-ruled the plan to save the money for their priorities. They are entitled to do so, but how do virtually instant lay-offs square with their policy of no compulsory redundancies? Is it perhaps because ME is an arms-length company their staff don’t really count?

It’s some reward for doing the research and groundwork for the council’s Tourist Tax plan, which can’t be introduced early enough to save the jobs.

At least Edinburgh’s not Venezuela

The problems facing Edinburgh council pale into insignificance compared to the agony being endured by the people in the failing states of Zimbabwe and Venezuela at the hands of left-wing dictators.

Both are once-thriving economies destroyed by hyperinflation; Zimbabwe’s agriculture was slowly destroyed under the Mugabe regime and first Hugo Chavez and now Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela have turned an oil-rich state into a basket-case – the ultimate debunking of Alex Salmond’s claim that “no country ever got poor by having oil”.

I was lucky enough to visit Venezuela in 2009 as a conference speaker at a hotel on the duty-free Caribbean island of Margarita. It would have been rude to refuse. Blue sky and sea, certainly and no shortage of palm trees, but it was far from a Malibu advert, the 1970s hotel crumbling with chickens from nearby shacks pecking around outside the gates, the local roads even worse than Edinburgh’s. The main town, Porlamar, had little to offer except a well-stocked, modern shopping mall designed to prise currency from tourists.

But it was safe and the potential was obviously massive, unlike Maracaibo to where some colleagues travelled on, where every shop and restaurant had an armed guard because gun crime was endemic. The triumphant face of Chavez as everywhere, usually prompting whispered insults from our interpreter, Freddy Flores.

Now extreme poverty has turned local fishermen into pirates, the Foreign Office warns Britons not to travel there and the United Nations warned yesterday that Venezuela is on the verge of catastrophe.

But Venezuelans have been living with catastrophe for years. Freddy was unwell a couple of years ago but had to have medicine flown over from his daughter in Miami. As events spiralled out of control last year, thanks to social media I sent him a message to see if he was ok. Yes, absolutely fine, was the reply. He now lives in Texas.