An amusing guy and the company he keeps

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By Kenneth Roy

As we saw yesterday in London and Edinburgh, there is no breed of humanity more arrogant than the business tycoon. Surprise surprise, the only one with whom I have had any personal dealings – a Scottish one – was not only arrogant but deeply unpleasant.

There is no logical source for this arrogance. They are not in the important business of tending the sick, consoling the grieving, teaching the young, or formulating wise policies for the public good. They are just in business, impure and simple. They have a way with money. Fine. They create jobs. They have a use. But it’s nothing to get excited about. They are not the new messiahs. Many of them are not very bright.

The two on show yesterday were not a pretty sight. In Edinburgh, Trump was having one of his bad hair days. In London, Murdoch was finding it difficult to communicate in the English language. Perhaps there is a special language for tycoons, consisting mainly of grunts.

It so happened that I started to watch the Leveson proceedings just as the inquiry counsel, Robert Jay QC, asked old man Murdoch about his friendship with Scotland’s first minister. I grabbed a pen and took a semi-verbatim note. Here it is:

Jay
The Scottish Sun was pro-SNP in 1992, but anti-SNP in 2007. ‘There was this headline: Vote SNP today and you put Scotland’s head in the noose.

Murdoch
I don’t remember that. But in 2010, we supported Mr Salmond and his party.

Jay
Your relationship with Mr Salmond improved after 2007. Between 2000 and 2007 there was no contact between you and Mr Salmond apart from two telephone calls.

Murdoch
Absolutely.

Jay
But from 30 October 2007, there was – I wouldn’t say frequent contact, but far more contact.
Murdoch agreed, adding that his company had opened a printing plant in Scotland. The questioning turned to a breakfast meeting about which Murdoch seemed to have no strong memory

Murdoch
It’s possible. It might have been in New York. They do breakfast meetings more there.

Jay
How would you describe your relationship with Alex Salmond?

Murdoch
Today I would describe it as warm.

Jay
And your relationship is continuing.

Murdoch
I don’t know Mr Salmond well, but he’s an amusing guy. I enjoy his company and enjoy talking to him and listening to him.

Jay
He found your views ‘insightful and stimulating’.
Murdoch did not disagree

Jay
He writes to you again inviting you to see a play called ‘Black Watch’, warning you that it’s quite challenging. Did you see it?

Murdoch
(with a hint of disdain) I’m afraid not.

Jay
Then the Scottish Sun supports the SNP in 2011, but is neutral on the subject of independence. Do you follow me?
Murdoch is struggling with a mound of papers. Silence

Jay
Was that a decision you contributed to?
Long silence

Murdoch
(finally) I don’t remember. Probably yes.

Jay
And why?

Murdoch
Well, it’s a little emotional. I am attracted by the idea, but I’m not convinced, so we stay neutral on the big issue. Let’s see how he [Salmond] performs.
Jay reminds him of the ‘Head in the noose’ headline

Murdoch
I didn’t write that.

Jay
But the emotional attachment to the SNP was not manifested in any way then.

Murdoch
I don’t know much about the SNP. I’ve just met Mr Salmond a few times and found him an attractive person. It’s a nice idea.
Jay quotes from an effusive letter to Mr Salmond, on the day after the SNP’s victory in the 2011 Scottish election, from a senior Murdoch executive in Scotland

Murdoch
Well, he might have gone too far in his enthusiasm. But if we didn’t continue to support Mr Salmond in Scotland at that stage, we really would have had an insurrection up there.
At this point – 2.50pm – Leveson has had enough and adjourns the inquiry for the day. It is a merciful decision, a form of pain relief.

What does Mr Salmond see in this man? There are several possible explanations, although they are not mutually exclusive.

(1) He genuinely likes Murdoch and does find him insightful and stimulating. This theory is fairly implausible, but should not be discounted.

(2) He is flattered by the attention – even by the cynical, self-serving attention – of powerful men, even ones as obviously over the hill as Murdoch. If there is some psychological truth in this theory, it suggests a surprising insecurity on the part of our leader.

(3) He cosies up to Murdoch, allegedly even to the extent of attempting to influence the BSkyB deal, because he believes the support of Murdoch’s media empire is essential for the purposes of political advancement. From a patriotic point of view this is the most insulting scenario of the three. It would betray an extremely low opinion of the intelligence and perception of the Scottish people that, in the mind of the first minister, they could not be trusted to form their own view of independence without the assistance of Murdoch’s more horrible newspapers.

Of course they have all been at it. The toadying to Murdoch and his minions has been a feature of British administrations since Margaret Thatcher was elected 33 years ago. Possibly Blair was the worst offender. He had not long been leader of the Labour Party when he presented himself at the court of Murdoch on some island thousands of miles away. Yet few saw through Blair at that stage. Most people were blinded by his apparent charm just as most people are blinded by Alex Salmond’s apparent affability. But for some reason I expected better of Mr Salmond. He seemed to promise a more open form of politics in which contact with the Murdochs and Trumps of this world would be severely discouraged.

Yesterday Murdoch called him ‘an amusing guy’ and Trump accused him of deceiving him. I don’t know which is more lowering to the reputation of our first minister.

The present Scottish government may be the best we have had since devolution. It is, on the whole, decent and competent; many of its ministers are of higher than average quality; it pursues socially progressive policies. For all these reasons, it is still widely appreciated. But if the great project is not to come crashing down in ridicule and scandal, its leader needs to start watching the company he keeps.

The danger, as always, is of a slow retreat from reality, into a world viewed from the back of a limousine.

Part 3 of Fun and Games, our series on the Commonwealth Games, has been held over until next week

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