A complaint from the first minister and our reply


By Kenneth Roy

Short of a personal rebuke from the first minister, we have the next best thing. Or worst. We have received a complaint from his private office about my piece on the Scottish Government’s sponsorship of the gowf at Inverness later this year.

Mr Mackie (‘Communications first minister’ – I take it that we don’t have a surrogate first minister and that a comma is missing after the first word of the job title) – writes:

I refer to Kenneth Roy’s recent article, ‘The proceeds of crime are being used to finance the lifestyles of rich golfers’. Please note that the proceeds of crime are not being used for the sponsorship of the tournament itself. The CashBack for Communities funding will be used to fund a ClubGolf programme for children that will sit alongside the tournament. That programme is yet to be announced, but is entirely in keeping with the aims of the highly successful CashBack initiative that funds diversionary activities for kids. The core sponsorship (£2m) will categorically not come from proceeds of crime. It will come from central government funding and be used solely to fund the operational delivery of the tournament – ie the infrastructure required to host the event. It will not, for instance, be used to fund the prize money. I would be grateful if your online copy could be amended to reflect this fact.

I am happy to make it clear that the dosh confiscated from Scotland’s drug barons and robbers is not going straight into the pockets of professional golfers. The drug barons and robbers are in fact helping out with some kiddies’ event of which we know little.

Rather the Scottish Government is helping to finance ‘the infrastructure required to host the event’, apparently an important distinction. I have no idea what this means. I am reluctant to assume that you and I are coughing up for the erection of spectator stands, or the inevitable car park, or the hospitality pavilion, all of which are part of the ‘infrastructure’ required to host such events. Reluctant, because it is difficult to imagine that any government strapped for cash would regard any of that stuff as a spending priority. So if it’s not any of that stuff, I expect that Mr Mackie will correct me a second time and tell me exactly where the money’s going.

The Scottish Open Championship, the event in question, is not a masterclass in philanthropy. There is nothing charitable about it. It is a mega-bucks commercial enterprise organised by professional golf’s European Tour, whose stars are sensitive Pringle-wearing souls unaware that there’s a double-dip recession going on. They are much too busy ‘playing solid’ in pursuit of a first prize of half a million quid for four days’ work. That at any rate was the size of last year’s cheque.

It is not the business of the Scottish Government to be part-sponsoring commercial golf tournaments. These events should stand or fall by their own merits.

All right, the cheque this year will be written out by the main sponsors of the tournament, Aberdeen Asset Management, and not by the Scottish Government. But there is no avoiding the fact that this pair are partners in an enterprise at the end of which a rich young pro will be even richer.

When I reported erroneously that the drug barons and robbers were picking up some of the bill for the tournament itself, there was a certain personal consolation; it took me out of the equation. See, I’m not a drug baron; I’m just one of the four million suckers who are helping to subsidise the Scottish Open Golf Championship. It seems my share is at least 50p – probably a lot more. Grudged.

Why, oh why? (as the better columnists used to ask in that rhetorical way of theirs). Ah. It seems that the event has a dual purpose. It exists not simply to finance the lifestyles of rich golfers, but to ‘boost’ Scottish tourism at a time of year – July – when the hotels of Inverness would be full anyway. The Scottish Government claims, for example, that the exposure on television will carry ‘over £6m of benefit to Scotland’. How on earth does it work that one out? I challenge the Communications first minister to justify the figure – to give me some reasonable basis for it.

It is not the business of government to be part-sponsoring commercial golf tournaments. These events should stand or fall by their own merits. The chief executive of Aberdeen Asset Management, Martin Gilbert, got an increase – repeat, increase – of £800,000 last year, taking his remuneration to a staggering £4.5m a year. If Mr Gilbert is so keen to be associated with professional golf, he should pay for the infrastructure himself and not expect any help from the rest of us.

Since the arts and sport are often considered together by Britain’s philistine governments, it is relevant to consider how the money being squandered on this golf tournament could have been more creatively spent. Two million pounds – the public investment in the Scottish Open – compares extremely generously with the £4m grant awarded to the Scottish National Orchestra to sustain its work for an entire year. Many arts organisations have gone out of business when a fraction of £2m would have saved them; many others struggle for survival, their subsidies pegged or cut.

The investment in the Scottish Open is a personal initiative of the first minister. He is a golf fan and knowledgeable about the history of the game. I too am a golf fan – in fact I have been following it for longer than the first minister and I too am knowledgeable about its history. But there was a problem of tense in the last sentence. I am not a golf fan. I was – until money corrupted it as it has corrupted most other sports. If the Scottish Government had a spare £2m, there were nobler causes. I would be happy to provide the Communications first minister with a list.

An operational footnote:

It may be of marginal interest to record the chronology of the complaint. Mr Mackie first contacted us at 6.05pm last Wednesday, 29 days after the publication of the offending article. I wrote this piece on Monday for use today. Mr Mackie contacted us a second time at 11.26am yesterday, in an email marked ‘URGENT’, repeating his demand for a correction. We replied 16 minutes later informing him that the matter would be dealt with in today’s edition. At 11.47, he sent yet another email marked ‘URGENT’, saying in effect that our response wasn’t good enough. Suddenly I see a vision of the future: Mr Mackie as head of an independent Scotland’s Department of Corrections, firing off URGENT emails, one after another, to transgressing journalists. Exciting prospect, really.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review