Police Scotland and Unionist news values a first test of Sturgeon Government

Leader Nicola Sturgeon at the "SNP 56" at Westminster last May.

Commentary by G.A. Ponsonby 

Last weekend I was jotting down some ideas for an article looking at how I saw the coming months pan out with respect to Unionist attacks on First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

The strategy I wanted to detail was the politicisation of an issue in order to then undermine the integrity of the Scottish Government. There was one organisation I felt was being readied for just such an attack – Police Scotland.

The late Sir Edward Heath: Subject to allegations currently being investigated by police in England.
The late Sir Edward Heath: Subject to allegations currently being investigated by police in England.

As I pondered my article, a story emerged. Sexual allegations against the late Prime Minister Edward Heath that had long inhabited that twilight world of conspiracy and rumour were forcing their way into main stream news.

The story gained momentum remarkably quickly.  It began to dominate the news agenda, even in Scotland.

The Heath story is damaging to Westminster, make no mistake. In this time of constitutional flux a story alleging the sexual abuse of young children by a former UK Prime Minister is not helpful to those who oppose Scottish independence. The Heath allegations follow equally disturbing claims made against another former senior Conservative minister, the late Leon Brittan and the Labour peer Lord Janner.

On Tuesday evening I posted a tweet that cryptically suggested what I term a “deflector” story would be introduced into the Scottish news agenda. The story would attack the SNP, supplanting the Heath story as the top news item.

On Wednesday morning just such a story emerged. I tuned into BBC Radio Scotland and heard the programme as it started. The recording below contains the first introductory headline and the first full length news bulletin.

As you can hear the top news story was an attack on the Scottish Government, using Police Scotland as the vehicle. The story was based on a press release by the Scottish Labour party. The party was planning to lodge a motion in the Scottish Parliament asking the Scottish Government to explain what it knew about claims Police Scotland may have broken the law by monitoring a journalist’s communications.

Although I had anticipated an attack on the SNP of some sort, I hadn’t expected the Police Scotland “spying” story to be the one headlined. For one, the story was already three days old, having been broken that weekend by the Sunday Herald. For another, opposition politicians had already issued condemnatory statements.

There was nothing new in Wednesday’s version of the story other than the fact that Scottish Labour had decided to engage in a bit of politicking. Yet Labour’s press release bumped the Edward Heath sex allegations off of its top spot.

I posted a couple of tweets on Wednesday morning highlighting this fact and also suggesting the Police Scotland spying story had been used to lever the Heath story out of the way. My suggestion was met with derision from the editor of Bella Caledonia. Mike Small posted the following message:

“I think your (sic) losing the plot”


But is it madness to suggest BBC Scotland would deliberately slot an attack on the Scottish Government by Labour into its top news slot in order to turn attention away from a story that damages Westminster?

BBC Scotland has considerable form when it comes to prioritising stories that just happen emerge at a fortuitous time for either the Labour party or Unionists. There are several examples of this phenomenon.

rep_scotI recall clearly the time when Wendy Alexander was coming under pressure over claims she had accepted an illegal donation to her Scottish Labour leadership campaign. As the story looked to be gaining traction and was causing serious problems for the party, another story emerged. Alex Salmond, claimed the BBC, had held a secret meeting with representatives of Donald Trump over plans the tycoon had for a golf complex in the North East.

“Trumpgate” dominated news headlines across the Scottish media for quite some time as a result. I chronicle its progression from a BBC Scotland “revelation” into a national smear campaign in my book ‘London Calling: How the BBC stole the Referendum’.  I have shown that Salmond’s meeting was never a secret.

Another example of fortuitous timing for Labour occurred on February 4th 2010 when news broke that several Westminster MPs who had been investigated over their expense claims were about to find out if they would face charges. Speculation had been mounting that one of the MPs facing possible criminal proceedings was the then Labour MP Jim Devine.

Devine had hit the headlines after claiming for joinery work which newspapers later reported had not been done. Receipts handed in by the Scottish Labour MP appeared to have come from a firm that didn’t exist. Doubts had been raised about expenses Devine claimed for £2,326 to install shelving and do repair work at his constituency office, and £2,157 in electrical work at his London home.

On February 5th the Crown Prosecution Service confirmed that Devine was indeed one of three serving Labour MPs who would face charges. The other two MPs were Elliot Morley and David Chaytor.

But the story wouldn’t dominate the news in Scotland. By a quite remarkable coincidence, as the Devine story gained momentum another story emerged, via the Herald newspaper.

Salmond: lunch fund-raiser
Salmond: lunch fund-raiser

Earlier that week SNP leader Alex Salmond had taken part in a fund-raising event at an Indian restaurant.  The event, held on Tuesday February 2nd, was organised by the Scots Asians for Independence group and  attended by around 200 people from Glasgow’s Asian community.  Midway through the evening a mock auction was held.  Diners were encouraged to “bid” for the privilege of having lunch with the SNP leader and his deputy Nicola Sturgeon at the Holyrood canteen. Both Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon would pay for the respective lunches.

There was nothing unusual about the light-hearted mock auction, it had featured at SNP fund-raising events before. There was also nothing preventing party donors from dining in the Holyrood canteen.

“Lunch gate” hit the headlines like a tsunami and all but wiped the Jim Devine story from the Scottish media.  It was “spiced up” when Labour Party member Bill Johnston reported Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon to the Scottish Parliamentary Standards Commissioner.

On the afternoon of February 4th, BBC Scotland ran the lunch auction story with the headline – Holyrood officials to clarify SNP lunch auction.  So important did BBC Scotland deem the story that its Political Editor Brian Taylor covered “lunch gate” in his blog twice, on February 4th and 8th. It featured across BBC Scotland TV and radio.

It’s interesting to note that well before the announcement that Devine was to be charged over the expenses scandal, many nationalists had openly predicted that if such charges came to pass, then a story would surface in the Scottish media that would serve to deflect public attention away from this very, very bad news for Scottish Labour. The best way to mitigate the damage to Labour – it was suggested – would be for another story to emerge, one that would enable the SNP to be presented in an equally bad light.

The spiking of stories that might be argued aid the SNP is not a new phenomenon and suggesting such is far from being a sign of madness. But even if moving the Edward Heath story from the top of its news wasn’t the intention of BBC Scotland, why was the Police Scotland story given such a huge profile?

It was the top item on Wednesday’s Good Morning Scotland and was top story on the BBC Scotland breakfast TV news bulletin.  As the day progressed BBC Scotland news bulletins claimed that Scotland’s Justice Minister, Michael Matheson, was coming under increased pressure.

Labour’s attack was the top story throughout the early part of the day on Radio Scotland, as you can hear from the recording below.

The story was being pushed for all it was worth and, as I had predicted, had bumped the Edward Heath story from its top spot.

Police Scotland was the second top story by the time the tea-time Reporting Scotland was broadcast, overtaken only by that day’s latest Bin Lorry revelations.  Below is a recording of how Reporting Scotland covered it.

But what exactly is the story? The claim is that Police Scotland acquired the mobile phone records of a journalist in order to find out who the journalist has been communicating with in relation to a murder investigation. The records do not contain the content of communications, but who the other party was.

The incidence of police allegedly checking a journalist’s phone records to see with whom he has been speaking may or may not be described as “spying”. Nevertheless the acquisition of this mobile data would have been in breach of a new UK law introduced in March that compels officers to obtain judicial approval before seeking to identify a journalist’s sources. It is believed Police Scotland, and another unnamed force in the UK failed to obtain the necessary approval in this one instance, although the Scottish force has refused to confirm or deny the situation.

Is the claim true?  Well no-one knows for sure because the organisation which is looking into the matter, the Interception of Communications Commissioner Office [IOCCO], has declined to confirm which two Police Forces may have transgressed the law. When it concludes its investigation the IOCCO may be in a position to reveal if there were indeed transgressions and whether the law was breached and by whom.

When the Sunday Herald broke the story last weekend it didn’t generate much of a fuss at BBC Scotland news. It didn’t dominate BBC news headlines. It wasn’t repeated across radio and TV news bulletins. That wasn’t surprising given that the story remained unconfirmed. There was no suggestion the practice has been  widespread in Scotland.

The story lay dormant for fully three days before Scottish Labour decided to use it to attack the Scottish Government. This was the trigger for BBC Scotland to begin headlining it. Only it wasn’t headlining the actual story, the broadcaster was in fact headlining Scottish Labour’s politicising of the story.

Scottish Labour had issued a statement making it known its MSPs would be lodging a parliamentary motion demanding the Scottish Government reveal what it knew about the issue. But what locus does the Scottish Government have over the legislation in question? The answer is none, it is reserved to Westminster.

Moreover IOCCO had issued a public statement, which said:

“It would be wholly inappropriate for us to name the two police forces whilst we are still in the process of investigating fully these matters.  

“Our primary concerns are to ensure that our investigation process is not prejudiced, that the privacy of those individuals who may have been adversely affected is protected and that those individuals are able to seek effective remedy.  

“Careful consideration has also had to be given to the fact that criminal investigations and legal proceedings are invariably active and we are not yet in a position to consider the impact or potential wider consequences of naming.”

Scottish Government ministers have no input into operational police matters. The Scottish Government’s Justice Secretary Michael Matheson will have had no knowledge of any breach. There has been no official confirmation from IOCCO that it is investigating Police Scotland. Thus, it was entirely appropriate that the Scottish Government maintain an official silence over this issue until the IOCCO reports its findings.

But how did BBC Scotland report the Scottish Government’s refusal to acquiesce to Scottish Labour’s demands?  You may not have caught it, but have another look at Rival Alderson’s comments in the Reporting Scotland clip above.

Here is what he says in reference to the Scottish Government official response, or lack of:

“They won’t comment on this matter and they say all matters on the interception of communications are reserved to Westminster.”

Alderson added:

“But it is of course interesting and revealing that last month, when it was announced that UK Security Agencies were able now to monitor the communications of MSPs among others, the Scottish Government was outraged and ministers demanded a change in UK policy and that was of course despite the fact that the operation of Security Forces was a reserved matter.”

There is a massive difference between MSPs having their conversations recorded by the British Security Services [real spying] and the Police Scotland story. Also, the anger expressed by Holyrood MSPs at being monitored by the British security Services wasn’t jeopardising any investigation.

The BBC Scotland reporter was hinting at hypocrisy on the part of the Scottish Government. In that brief moment, Rival Alderson shed his impartiality.  The Scottish Government had refused to play BBC Scotland’s game.

You’ll also see from the clip above that the story was the top issue on that night’s Scotland 2015. The programme featured journalist Eamon O’Connor, who said he believed his own mobile phone records had been acquired.

O’Connor’s interview became the top story that following Thursday morning on BBC Scotland Online. It also featured prominently in bulletins on Good Morning Scotland, as you can hear below.

This was day two of the BBC’s coverage of the Police Scotland spying story. But it wasn’t just news bulletins that saw Police Scotland pushed to the top of the news agenda. Listen to the recording below, it is the newspaper preview from Good Morning Scotland.

The first two newspaper headlines chosen were both linked to Police Scotland.  Indeed the Scotsman story, which was based on Freedom of Information request by the Scottish Lib Dems, also featured as one of the topics on that morning’s Radio Phone-in, as you can hear from this next clip.

So we now have both Scottish Labour and the Scottish Lib Dems both seeking to make political capital out of Police Scotland.  Both parties are being indulged by BBC Scotland.  It’s clear that BBC Scotland was doing its level best to ensure Police Scotland remained at the forefront of its news and current affairs agenda.

On Friday the story was again covered by BBC Scotland when the Scottish Lib Dems called for a Parliamentary inquiry into whether Police Scotland had ‘spied’ on journalists.  The party’s justice spokeswoman Alison McInnes wrote to the convener of Holyrood’s Policing Sub-Committee to ask it to investigate the claims.

Although lower in priority than the previous two days, the story still featured on Radio Scotland and Reporting Scotland:

There’s little doubt that Scottish Labour and the Scottish Lib Dems are seeking to make political capital out of the Police Scotland spying story. There’s also little doubt that BBC Scotland is more than happy to ensure the politicising of the issue remains near the top of the news agenda in Scotland.

I was already very suspicious as to the motives of the Unionist parties and the broadcaster by Friday evening.  When the story appeared at the top of BBC Scotland’s news agenda on Saturday my suspicions were confirmed.

Below is the introductory news headline from Saturday’s edition of Good Morning Scotland.

The clip above was followed by a very lengthy interview with Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie.  Immediately after was an interview with Scottish Justice Minister Michael Matheson.

A story that BBC Scotland initially paid scant attention to for fully three days has now been given four days successive coverage. This kind of continuous coverage is usually reserved for stories of considerable political significance. What the ‘spying’ story is essentially about is the failure to seek approval before acquiring records. A four-day long news story it isn’t.

Police Scotland: Locked in various controversies
Police Scotland: Locked in various controversies

Police Scotland hasn’t had the best profile recently with a few self-inflicted wounds. The blunder that followed the M9 car crash will long endure in the memories of most of us. It was compounded when an officer left a message on the mobile phone of one of the victims.

There is also the dreadful episode that was the Sheku Bayoh custody death and controversies over stop and search and the carrying of weapons by some officers. Police Scotland is a political dripping roast.

Unionists see an opportunity to attack the Scottish Government and indirectly Nicola Sturgeon. In Police Scotland we have the perfect vehicle for just such an attack. The motion lodged by Labour and the demand for an inquiry by the Lib Dems is nothing more than an attempt to keep the organisation in the public eye and to try to link the Scottish Government to each bad news story.

I suspect what we are witnessing is the creation of what will be presented to the public as Nicola Sturgeon’s first crisis. The First Minister has had a phenomenal first few months as leader of her party and head of the Scottish Government. She survived the failed French Ambassador “memo gate” smear which was intended to derail the SNP’s general election campaign. A clumsy bid by Buckingham Palace to undermine her also failed.  Unionists have struggled to find a weakness in Alex Salmond’s successor.

The Holyrood recess ends on August 30th. The next First Minister’s Questions is scheduled for September 3rd. Do not be surprised to see Police Scotland wielded by Scottish Labour and its Unionist allies as they try to dent Sturgeon’s popularity.

If its coverage of the Police Scotland ‘spying’ story is anything to go by, BBC Scotland is already on board.

Postscript:  As I was about to submit this article, the Police Scotland “spying” story appeared again in the Sunday Herald. According to the article, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was aware that Police Scotland may have breached the law by acquiring the mobile phone records of a journalist.

I have opined on Twitter that this story now looks suspiciously choreographed. Labour, the Lib Dems and the BBC appear to have taken a major interest just days before Nicola Sturgeon’s name was linked.

Below is how the issue of Police Scotland was discussed on BBC Radio Scotland on Sunday morning. Bill Whiteford ends the discussion saying “It’s gonna run I suppose.”  He isn’t wrong I suspect.

G.A.Ponsonby is the author of ‘London Calling: How the BBC stole the Referendum’.  Order the book here