Damp squib time for Scottish media as First Minister glides through inquiry


By G.A.Ponsonby

Opponents of Alex Salmond, and there are many, were dealt a double whammy yesterday when only hours after the First Minister gave an honest and confident performance at the Leveson inquiry, his party aide Geoff Aberdein was also cleared of any wrongdoing over an email to a News Corp employee.

As damp squibs go this was one of the wettest.  Not since Guy Fawkes failed to blow up Parliament had so much metaphorical gun powder failed to ignite.

Indeed the only spark of interest was the unexpected revelation from Mr Salmond that his bank account had been, he believed, hacked by an English based broadsheet.

The day had started with BBC Scotland online declaring that Mr Salmond was to “answer questions” in his scheduled appearance at Leveson.

Radio Scotland ran with the theme declaring much the same, going as far as describing Mr Salmond as “under pressure” and already having “refused to answer any questions”.

In case the BBC’s online readers didn’t get the message, BBC Scotland’s Brian Taylor provided a list of ‘evidence’ that Mr Salmond would face.

However Taylor, and pretty much the whole of the Scottish press corp, was left disappointed when nothing emerged from Mr Salmond’s appearance – no phone hacking and no evidence of any deal between Mr Salmond and Rupert Murdoch.

The suggested smears relating to the Sun’s endorsement of the SNP was probably nothing other than a paper backing a winner at a point in time they knew the SNP was well ahead in the polls, the Sun came out in support around 14 days before the election after having commissioned a poll.

Indeed Salmond all but destroyed the attempts to suggest any quid-pro-quo when he pointed out that Mr Murdoch’s influence hadn’t stretched as far as the Times newspaper, who continued to attack the SNP.

It didn’t prevent Mr Taylor from describing questions into the now clearly baseless claims of a ‘deal’ between Mr Salmond and Mr Murdoch as “substance”.

Just what was “substantive” about asking a question on a matter for which there is not a shred of evidence only Mr Taylor knows, and why no mention of the lack of support from the Times newspaper?

Taylor’s blog also included another helpful piece of imagery in the form of Mr Salmond standing alongside Rupert Murdoch.  One of the five meetings in five years Mr Salmond had described in evidence to the inquiry.  We’ll wait a while before Brian Taylor publishes a photo of Ed Miliband holding aloft a copy of the Sun newspaper by way of balance.

But Mr Taylor’s online witterings were nothing to the quite incredible press releases sent out by Johann Lamont and Willie Rennie.

Here’s what Brian Taylor said of these press releases:

“Tonight Mr Salmond’s critics say that the evidence heard today does not get round the fact that he was a loyal and persistent supporter of the Murdochs even after the phone hacking scandal emerged.”

So, it is a ‘fact’ that Mr Salmond was a “loyal and persistent supporter of the Murdochs” after the phone hacking scandal.  Shame this loyal and persistent support didn’t merit an invite to the summer garden party attended by Ed Miliband.

Miliband admitted yesterday that he had spoken to Rupert Murdoch at the party and regretted not bringing up the phone hacking scandal.

Now that’s a fact!

But what of the press releases?

Well here’s Willie Rennie’s:

“Mr Salmond clearly thought that rather than being on the stand at the Leveson Inquiry he thought he was sitting on the sofa at the One Show.

“From recommendation for books and theatre shows to the pleasures of golf in Scotland, Mr Salmond danced around questions, merrily ignoring the seriousness of the issues that are being dealt with.

“Mr Salmond failed to provide evidence that he didn’t trade support for News International on phone hacking in return for political support from the Sun and News of the World.  He put his interests above those of the phone hacking victims.”

So Salmond was comfortable, relaxed and … wait for it, failed to provide evidence he hadn’t made a deal with Murdoch.

This idiocy should have been treated with contempt by Brian Taylor.  Since when is it a requirement to prove you aren’t guilty of a smear?

But there’s something else in Rennie’s statement.  Read again, the Scottish Lib Dem leader is making a new accusation – apparently Mr Salmond is now being accused of supporting phone hacking … incredible.

If Rennie’s statement is bad, there’s even worse from Scottish Labour:

The First Minister Alex Salmond has admitted to the Leveson inquiry that he was at Rupert Murdoch’s beck and call.

Asked about emails which said he was prepared to lobby the UK government on the Murdoch’s behalf over their proposed takeover of BskyB at any time, he confirmed this was the case.

Responding to the First Minister’s evidence, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont said:

“The First Minister’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry was embarrassing to Scotland in what he said, and the way he said it.

“Alex Salmond admitted he was at Rupert Murdoch’s beck and call and prepared to lobby on his behalf whenever he asked.

“Yet he offered not one scrap of evidence that Scotland benefitted from his closeness to the Murdoch Empire – described by the inquiry counsel as ‘cosiness’.

“We call on him now to answer the 40 questions we have tabled about the details of what the Murdochs offered him, and how this offer was assessed.

“Without those details all of Scotland will reach the same conclusion that the Inquiry’s lawyer repeatedly put to Mr Salmond – that this looks like a case of him being prepared to intervene in Rupert Murdoch’s commercial interests in return for the support of his newspapers.”

Forty questions no less.  One shudders to think how much it would cost the Scottish taxpayer for each one of Labour’s questions to be answered.

Indeed it begs the question just how much money has been wasted with the constant stream of complaints against the First Minister, his aides and Civil Servants by Labour MSPs that have to be painstakingly investigated.

The latest one was Labour MSP James Kelly who had claimed that Mr Salmond’s adviser Geoff Aberdein had breached the code of conduct by sending an email to a News Corp employee clarifying Mr Salmond’s support for the BskyB bid.  It went the way of all of the other complaints.

All in all a good day for the First Minister and a frustrating one for his political opponents both within media circles and political ones.

The Salmond/Murdoch smears disappeared from our media the day after the local elections in Scotland.  Today proved that there was never any substance to the accusations of a deal with Rupert Murdoch, the claims were always more about damaging Alex Salmond pre-election than anything else.

“Will we get any closer to understanding the relationship between Rupert Murdoch and Alex Salmond.” said Gordon Brewer on Newsnight Scotland.  BBC Scotland had invested quite a bit in what turned out to be a non story, Salmond and Murdoch – there was nothing and there is nothing.

It’s difficult to see where the state broadcaster and the other Scottish media can go with this.  But this is the BBC, so let’s just wait and see.  With no evidence to back claims of a deal, BBC Scotland might just continue running questions and innuendo, or even turn their attention to the Observer claim and a “Why did he not tell us sooner” line.

Indeed, as things stand the only evidence of a deal is between BBC Scotland and Scottish Labour – the number of complaints by Johann Lamont’s party appearing as headlines on BBC Scotland is quite incredible.

One wonders if and when the BBC will realise that there is a difference between opposition to Government and opposition to governance.

Scottish Labour will continue to bark – it’s what they do.  Paul Martin looks to be the ‘attack dog’ unleashed by Johann Lamont.

Is the SNP not now concerned about concentration of power and competition in the media? asked Gordon Brewer near the end of the programme, apparently oblivious to the irony of his question.

One question that seems not to have been asked: What could Alex Salmond have offered Rupert Murdoch anyway, he had no power whatsoever over the BSkyB decision.