Megrahi, the media and the myths – Part 3: The Backlash


The backlash; it was as certain as the sun rising in the morning.  As a result of the release of Al Megrahi Scotland was the new pariah state and everyone hated us, the Americans especially.

Our trade would suffer greatly as the US began to boycott Scottish goods.  Thousands of jobs would be lost as US tourists abandoned Scotland.

We were doomed…..

In part one we featured the ‘Deal in the Desert’, the clandestine meeting that took place between then Labour leader Tony Blair and Col Gaddafi of Libya.  We covered the reaction of the Scottish media and political opponents when the SNP exposed the meeting and its purpose.
Part two focussed on the reporting of the actual release of Al Megrahi.  We highlighted what we believed to be shortcomings in BBC Scotland’s coverage.  Shortcomings that included conflating well documented deals involving Libya, the UK Labour government and a UK oil company – with the very separate issue of the compassionate release, something that the Scottish media are still doing with even more vigour.
In this latest instalment we will deal with an aspect of the story that has been repeated ad nauseum by the SNP’s political opponents and media commentators alike – the US backlash.
In the days and weeks following Megrahi’s return to Libya the news coverage turned away from the release and onto international reaction.  The story was global, it received huge coverage not least because of the pronouncements by senior American politicians.
President Obama said: “The United States deeply regrets the decision by the Scottish Executive to release Abdel Basset Mohamed al-Megrahi”.  Hillary Clinton was said to have been “deeply disappointed” by the decision.
Reaction of families of the US victims was more vociferous with the decision being described as vile, appalling and sickening.  Not every American opposed the release, some agreed, whilst others were simply bewildered, but in the immediate aftermath it was not surprising that the voices of condemnation were the loudest.
The bombing killed 259 people on the Pan Am jet and 11 on the ground. Of the dead, 189 were Americans.
Almost immediately our newspapers and airwaves were filled with cries that Scotland had been damaged, that we had been shamed, that the national flag hung limply and that there would be a terrible price to pay.  The same Unionist politicians and media voices who had condemned the release now predicted that the nation would be shunned, that our international standing had been diminished and more worryingly that our trade would suffer as a result of a backlash.

STV online wrote:
“This year is the year of the Scottish Government’s Homecoming – an initiative aimed at encouraging overseas visitors to come to Scotland, particularly Americans.  There are now fears that it is Megrahi’s homecoming that 2009 will be remembered for.”

The BBC online news wrote:
“The release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi has left a diplomatic mess that will take a lot of time and effort to clear up.”

The Scotsman’s David Maddox wrote:
Scots law is now the ‘laughing stock of the world’

Jack McConnell, the former Labour First Minister, said the decision damaged Scotland in a way “that will take years to recover”.

A single website appeared urging people to boycott Scotland.  A now rabid media lost all sense of proportion and seized on this revelation describing it as a “campaign”.

Iain Gray said:
“Those calling for a boycott of Scotland are emboldened by [MacAskill’s] foolish claim that the decision was taken in the name of the people of Scotland. In seeking to portray this as a decision supported by the whole of the country, he has damaged Scotland’s reputation. It shows serious lack of judgment which has cost our country dear.”

The sheer scale of the media hysteria made it impossible for rational comment to be heard – we were all doomed, the Americans hated us, in fact everyone hated us …. we even seemed to hate ourselves.

However as the days passed, it slowly became apparent that, outwith the USA at least, there was still a feeling of goodwill towards this small nation.  Messages of support and backing began to arrive from international figures, with Nelson Mandela himself praising Scotland’s show of compassion.
The grandson of Muhatma Ghandi, Arun Gandhi, was another who supported the release saying: “an eye for an eye justice makes the whole world blind”.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu also gave his public support.  Cries from political opponents that Scotland had been shamed and that the national flag ‘hung limply’ were looking hollow.

However the situation with regards the USA remained in flux and Scottish businesses, heavily reliant on the United States market, were watching carefully.
The first few days after the release, with hysteria at its height, saw anecdotal stories emerge.  A handful of hotel cancellations and people calling to express their anger were reported, but other than that, nothing major seemed to materialise.

VisitScotland had received messages from Americans condemning the release but, four days later, there were still no actual cancellations. VisitScotland spokeswoman Alison Robb said: “We have had e-mails from people in America saying they’re going to cancel their holidays but have had no cancellations through our booking engine.”
A spokesman for the Scotch Whisky Association said it was “monitoring” the situation. But members of the whisky industry stated that they were confident any boycott would soon fizzle out and not pose a long-term threat to sales.
Almost one week after the release Colin Paton, chairman of the Edinburgh Hotel Association, said that 50 hotels in his group had already brought up the issue and were awaiting the backlash.

We waited and waited – but, by mid September no backlash had materialised.  It seemed that all we had was a lone website set up by a single person and a few messages.

So, what did our media do?

Well, they pretty much carried on in the same vein.  Damaged relations with the US, outrage at our decision and of course ‘the backlash’ were served up almost daily.  However the lack of any real concrete evidence of any substantive backlash was noticeable.

And then, right on cue, one story duly emerged – Harris Tweed were planning to drop its Scottish image as a result of the ‘backlash’.

On Sunday 13th September, The Sunday Telegraph ran a story stating that Harris Tweed Hebrides had decided to disassociate itself from Scotland in its promotional material due to a backlash they were experiencing in the USA – apparently caused by the release of Al Megrahi.

The story was picked up by The Times as well as Scottish newspapers including The Scotsman and The Daily Record who ran it on Monday

Within 24 hours though, the story had been comprehensively torn apart by Harris Tweed Chief Executive Ian Mackenzie who described the reports as “nonsense” and that Harris Tweed was a “Scottish icon”.

Mackenzie went on to say:
“Harris Tweed Hebrides have never once thought about, far less spoken about, dropping the word Scottish. “We are a Scottish company. We are all proud Scots and we will continue to sell Harris Tweed all over the world as a Scottish product made in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.”

Asked whether there had been a backlash against Scottish tweed following Megrahi’s release on compassionate grounds, Mr. Mackenzie said: “Absolutely none. We sell about 5% of our product in the US and we have been speaking to people in the market over the past few weeks. “There has been no reaction whatsoever. We would not expect any reaction.”

The story had already travelled the globe before Mr. Mackenzie highlighted it as fictitious garbage – so, the question was: Who was behind it?

It is interesting to note that the Harris Tweed Hebrides executives are former Labour Party politicians, Alasdair Morrison and Brian Wilson.  Mr Wilson is also a former Labour government minister and well known critic of the SNP.  Brian Wilson had already publicly attacked Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill’s decision to release Al Megrahi on compassionate grounds saying that it churned his stomach.

On the morning after the publication of the original article Brian Wilson miraculously appeared on BBC Scotland’s ‘Good Morning Scotland’ where, although denying that the firm was ‘trying to hide its Scottishness’, confirmed the thrust of the story by stating that “I think all that was said was that in the current climate we will emphasise the Hebrides”. Brian Wilson also claimed that other Scottish firms had expressed stronger concerns, although he did not name these firms.

The journalist who broke the story is one Auslan Cramb who cited as his source Harris Tweed Hebrides’ creative director Mark Hogarth; it was comments attributed to Mr. Hogarth that led to the article being written. However what isn’t clear is how these two came together and at whose behest it was that Cramb spoke to Hogarth – if indeed he ever did?

So, Harris Tweed had been used as a club with which to beat Kenny MacAskill, the story that they were dropping their Scottish image as a result of the Megrahi release was fabrication and Harris Tweed had to endure damaging publicity as a result.

With no clear evidence with which to bolster the ‘backlash’ and ‘damaged relationship’ claims, where now for the media and opponents of the SNP?

The vacuum was once again filled by BBC Scotland who duly despatched, at great expense, film crews and several of their presenters – including Glenn Campbell – all the way to New York.  You’ll remember that Mr Campbell had described Kenny MacAskill as “the toast of Tripoli” on the evening of Megrahi’s release – a comment that led to the setting up of a facebook page attacking the Justice Minister.

The purpose, we were informed, of this expensive trip to the USA was to cover Libyan leader Col Gaddafi’s visit to the UN.  However, the BBC Scotland team seemed to spend much of their time searching for signs of the now mythical ‘backlash’ and evidence of ‘damaged relations’.

We didn’t have long to wait before Glenn Campbell found someone only too willing to publicly state that there was indeed damage and that it needed to be repaired. 

On 21st September in a broadcast from the USA a woman, Susan Stewart, who was described by the BBC Scotland presenter as “Scotland’s former “ambassador” in the United States” gave her views on US/Scottish relations.

Stewart told BBC Scotland: “I think undoubtedly there has been some short-term damage to the relationship between Scotland and the United States, but I don’t think that damage is irrevocable.

“Their perspective on Lockerbie I think is that it was an attack on the United States and on their citizens, which makes the anger and the hurt that many Americans feel very real.

“So, yes there has been a problem but not one I think that we can’t get past.”

Stewart’s comments were reported on Good Morning Scotland by Glenn Campbell, they also appeared on the BBC Scotland website and featured in news items throughout the day.

However there was something about Ms Stewart that the BBC had failed to mention.

Ms Stewart’s official title was not that of ‘ambassador’ but rather Secretary for Scottish Affairs, she was based at the British embassy in Washington until the role ended in 2005.   Susan Stewart was appointed to this role in 2001 by former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish.

The connections to Scottish Labour do not end there, for Newsnet Scotland can reveal that Susan Stewart is also the former chief press officer to one ……. Jack McConnell, a role she occupied when he was education minister.

Furthermore Stewart’s partner at the time was Jeanne Freeman, who was a special adviser to McConnell after he became the First Minister and was one of his most trusted aides.

Jack McConnell is just one of many Unionist politicians who had attempted to politicise the Megrahi decision and who also claimed there was ‘international outrage’ at the decision.

The following day Glenn Campbell hot footed it to Washington in order to attend a State Department press briefing.  If one wondered why Campbell felt it necessary to leave New York in order to attend such a routine briefing they were answered when Campbell asked his question:

“Glenn Campbell from the BBC. Has the United States forgiven the Scottish Government for releasing the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing?”

It appeared to be a loaded question, a question constructed in such a way as to maximise the chances of eliciting a desired response.  The full exchange is reproduced below, the highlighted section was edited out of Radio Scotland’s broadcast the following morning.

Campbell: “Glenn Campbell from the BBC. Has the United States forgiven the Scottish Government for releasing the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing?”

Kelly: “Well, our views on that issue, of course, are extremely well known. Again, we’ve passed these views both in private channels and in – also publicly. I think just about everything that we have said to the governments in London and Edinburgh through diplomatic channels have mirrored what we’ve said publicly. I don’t think it’s a matter of forgiving anybody. I think all along, we recognized that Mr. MacAskill had the right to do what he did. We objected extremely strenuously at many different levels and in many different channels to the release of Mr. Megrahi.
“I think at this point, we’re looking to move on. We’re looking to continue the very important cooperation that we have with the United Kingdom and with Scotland. We have very deep and abiding ties with Scotland. These ties are cultural. They’re – we share political values. We have many family ties. My own father, as you probably can guess from my first name, is Scottish. He was born in Edinburgh. So we’re looking to move on. We’re looking for a – to continue this important relationship that we have with Scotland.”

Campbell: “Is there any diplomatic price for the Scottish Government to pay?”

Kelly: “We are very close allies, and I think allies – I don’t think we’re looking to punish anybody, per se. There’s no tit-for-tat here.”

Nothing to forgive and no one will be ‘punished’, time to move on and continue the important relationship – a pretty clear and unambiguous statement.

These two broadcasts, both the ‘ambassador’ item and Campbell’s questions to the State Department’s Ian Kelly pretty much exemplified BBC Scotland’s week in the USA which seemed more an attempt at keeping the Megrahi ‘backlash’ story alive than anything else. 

A BBC Scotland team sent all the way to America to provide a full week of coverage, at considerable expense, that didn’t illuminate the story much at all.  That’s a pity, for if any of the BBC team had tried, then they could have arranged to interview an American relative of a Lockerbie victim whose views had yet to be broadcast in the UK.

Caroline Stevenson, whose son, Syracuse student Sandy Phillips, was aboard Pan Am 103, has already stated that she is “not disturbed” by Al-Megrahi’s release.

“Whether he’s in jail or whether he’s with his family, it doesn’t impact me,” she said. “He should be able to be with his family and die in peace. And I hope he has found some peace.” “I am not disturbed by it. I feel like if he is dying of prostate cancer, I don’t have any problems at all with him being able to be with his family as he dies.”

Stevenson added that she doesn’t understand the U.S. government’s opposition to al-Megrahi’s release.  “I strongly believe in the Scottish Judicial system, and I support their decision,” she said. “The people of Scotland have been very good to me and my family.”

As far as we are aware, almost three years later, the views of Caroline Stevenson have still to feature in any main stream media outlet including BBC Scotland.

The BBC Scotland team had been sent on a ‘fishing expedition’ and had returned empty handed.

As we moved into October 2009 we were still waiting for evidence of a major backlash and the signs were that Scotland’s international reputation was holding up.

This though didn’t prevent the then Secretary of State for Scotland, Labour MP Jim Murphy, saying on 14th October in the House of Commons:

“I think that the issue was very badly mishandled and those scenes in Tripoli were a national disgrace. The St. Andrew’s flag was trailed out on to the tarmac to celebrate that man’s return; that image will haunt Scotland across the world. Some damage was done to Scotland’s reputation, although I do not wish to overstate it. It is now the responsibility of all of us to work together to rebuild Scotland’s reputation across the world.

In fact fully three months after the release there was still no sign of the backlash.  In November a series of statements from prominent Scottish business spokespeople confirmed that all was looking well and some even complained that media scare stories had been “misleading”.

“We’ve had absolutely no contact from anyone in the States — in fact when we mentioned this to our US agents they said they’d never heard of it,” said Ian Angus Mackenzie, chief executive of Harris Tweed Hebrides. “As far as we’re concerned this is a non-event.”

Other Scottish companies such as Walkers Shortbread – famous for its distinctive tartan biscuit tins – were reluctant to comment but indicated that press reports of concerns over Scottish branding were misleading.

Scotch whisky manufacturers were similarly unperturbed.  The whisky industry had the most to lose from an American consumer boycott – the US is its largest overseas market, accounting for 12% of global exports of £3.1bn in 2008 – but up till November the only impact had been a flurry of internet activity in the immediate aftermath of Al-Megrahi’s release.

“It’s business as usual in the US at the moment,” said a spokesman for the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), which represents 55 of the leading producers. “Like many Scottish organisations and media we received emails from the US about the judgement, but our members aren’t reporting anything more serious than that.”

No major backlash ever materialised, Scotland went on to have a bumper 2009 with the Homecoming a spectacular success that saw Scotland beating world trends in tourism.  Susan Boyle became the most famous Scot on the planet and took America by storm.

Today though, you will still hear the occasional commentator refer to the ‘damage’ to Scotland’s reputation,  the need to ‘repair’ our relationship with the USA and of course the ‘backlash’ against Scottish trade and tourism.

It was one of the more insidious myths propagated by some of our own media figures and politicians, who appeared to relish the opportunity to traduce the image of their own nation.

Many of the hysterical comments were irresponsible to say the least, for such a high profile politicised campaign could well have become a self fulfilling prophecy and cost thousands of Scottish jobs – and guess who would have been the first to start jumping up and down in indignation.