© Daily Record
I’d always assumed there was no dirt to dig up on Alex Salmond, ex-leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of Scotland from 2007 to 2014. I assumed this for the simple reason that if there had been, his countless enemies in the old Scottish establishment and the Scottish press – the latter largely a sub-set of the former – would have dug it up and used it to wreck his reputation long ago.
Thus, it came as a surprise when last Thursday the Daily Record reported allegations of Salmond sexually harassing two female Scottish government employees while he was First Minister, which have recently been the subject of an inquiry by the Scottish government and have now been passed on to the police.
What didn’t surprise me was the absolute circus in Scotland’s newspapers that followed the disclosure of these allegations. ‘SALMOND SCANDAL,’ screamed one headline. ‘ECK SEX PROBE,’ barked another. ‘BOOZED-UP SALMOND “TOUCHED WOMAN’S BREASTS,”’ brayed a third.
You got the impression the hacks were throwing so much muck at Salmond because they hoped that, even if the allegations against him weren’t proven, the muck would still stick and besmirch his reputation forever after. Occasionally the coverage went beyond even that. From some headlines, you’d have thought Salmond wasn’t just under investigation but had been already tried, found guilty and sentenced. The Scottish Sun claimed that he was in a ‘Shakespearean play’s final act’ and had ‘gone from national hero to laughing stock’. In the Times, a piece by Alex Massie bore the headline, ‘WHATEVER HAPPENS, IT’S OVER FOR SALMOND’. No wonder some people on Twitter likened the sentiments to the old approach for detecting witches, i.e. by chucking them into the river. If you float, you’re a witch, and you’re dead. Whereas if you sink, you’re not a witch, but you’re still dead.
Before I continue, let me warn that, like most of the press coverage, this post is going to be all about Salmond. There’ll be little reference to the women who’ve made the allegations, even though they may well be the victims in this ugly affair – but they’re difficult to focus on as they’re currently staying anonymous. Also, let me say that if Salmond is proven guilty of harassment, I believe he deserves everything he gets. Politically, legally and reputationally, he should be strung up by the balls.
But I can’t see how the reporting of the story so far, reeking of score-settling, vendettas and political partisanship, is going to help anyone involved. Not only Salmond, who’s still supposed to be innocent until proven otherwise; but also the women making the allegations. If there’s substance to what they are saying – and again there may well be – then they’ll surely want the process of the investigation to appear measured and impartial. They’ll want Salmond to be convicted after a fair hearing. They’ll not want biased press coverage giving it the shrill trappings of a witch-hunt, because that’ll leave people believing the guilty party isn’t really guilty but is the victim of a stitch-up.
It’s long been obvious that many influential citizens in Scotland have hated Salmond’s guts. I remember living in London in the early 1990s after Salmond had been made SNP leader, and drinking occasionally with a Labour Party spin doctor, also from Scotland. He had no inhibitions about telling me, at every opportunity, what a detestable creep he thought Salmond was. With his smart-Alec manner (ouch) and his habitual smirk, which frequently expanded into a Cheshire-cat grin, and his arrogance that no doubt came from knowing he was intellectually streets ahead of the numpties making up the majority of Westminster’s Scottish MPs, you could understand how Salmond was an annoyance to his opponents. But back then the SNP had just three MPs, so he at least could be dismissed as a minor annoyance.
How long ago that seems now. In those far-off days, the Labour Party controlled much of Scotland at council level, provided the lion’s share of Scottish MPs for Westminster and, when it arrived in 1999, dominated the Scottish parliament too. If their party also happened to be in power at Westminster, which it was occasionally, Scottish Labour-ites must have felt like lords of all they surveyed. If the Conservatives were in power at Westminster, which they were most of the time, those Scottish Labour-ites grumbled a bit, but diplomatically kept their heads down while right-wing Tory policies were imposed on Scotland.
This suited Scotland’s newspapers, owned by magnates and companies that were sympathetic to either the Labour party or the Conservative one. The Tory papers could rest easy because although Scotland was a Labour fiefdom, they knew the party’s Scottish branch wasn’t going to kick up a big fuss about Scotland’s political will being kept subservient to that of London. Meanwhile, the relationship between Scottish journalists and Scottish politicians was ickily close. As Iain Macwhirter observed in his book Disunited Kingdom (2015), “Scottish journalism is almost as tribal as Scottish politics, and Labour has traditionally called the shots in the Scottish media through its extensive patronage networks.” And if you were a columnist in a Scottish newspaper, you could have a high conceit of yourself indeed – luxuriating as a big, opinion-forming fish in a safe, wee political pool.
Then in 2007 the sky fell in. Salmond’s SNP won the biggest majority of seats in the Scottish parliament. They’ve remained in power there during the 11 years and two Scottish parliamentary elections since. They also won the majority of Scotland’s Westminster seats in the UK general elections in 2015 and 2017 (admittedly a lower number in 2017, but still more than all the other parties’ Scottish seats put together). They lost the independence referendum in 2014 – an event that led to Salmond resigning as First Minister – but the percentage of the vote they got, 45%, was still far more than what anyone had expected at the campaign’s start.
This stuck in a great many craws – not just in those of the Scottish Labour Party, with its historical sense of entitlement, but in those of the majority of Scotland’s newspapers, who discovered to their horror that no matter how negatively they reported the SNP and its performance as the new Scottish government, a significantly large proportion of the Scottish public ignored them and kept on voting SNP. All that, plus a catastrophic drop in Scottish newspaper sales during the 21st century – the Herald, for instance, declining from a circulation of 85,000 in 2003 to one of 30,000 in 2016. Scottish journalistic teeth gnashed frenziedly while their influence dwindled. Meanwhile, the grin of Alex Salmond, the bastard who seemed emblematic of the good times coming to an end, grew even wider, his mood grew ever merrier and his girth grew ever more Falstaffian.
Of course, Salmond’s media and political foes have been desperate to get back at him and he’s looked increasingly vulnerable since he lost his Westminster seat in the middle of 2017. To be honest, lately, Salmond hasn’t just given his detractors ammunition for this. He’s handed them a whole arsenal. In August 2017, he put on at the Edinburgh Festival a chat-show called Alex Salmond: Unleashed, which from all accounts was a graceless, self-indulgent and ego-driven affair. Mind you, those accounts were mostly published in the Scottish press, so they weren’t ever going to be positive.
Soon after, to cries of outrage, he developed his stage-show into a programme called The Alex Salmond Show, which was broadcast on RT, Russia’s international English-language news channel. The show has featured some interesting guests, including Charles Puigdemont, Alastair Campbell, Bertie Ahern, Mary McAleese, Peter Tatchell, Brian Cox, Doddie Weir and Jackie Stewart. And there’s been plenty of stone-throwing in glass houses among the show’s many political critics – after all, both Conservative and Labour MPs have accepted payments to appear on RT in the past, and UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has happily shown his face on Iran’s notorious Press TV, and former Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Lembit Opik still hosts a show for the same outfit. Nonetheless, despite all the humbug, associating himself with Vladimir Putin’s televisual voice to the world was neither a wise nor ethical move on Salmond’s part.
Still, now, it would be edifying if Scotland’s politicos and pundits could stand back and quietly allow the police investigation of Salmond to run its course, so that the truth can be finally and convincingly arrived at – and if there’s been criminal behavior, it gets punished, and if people have suffered from criminal behavior, amends are made to them. A lot of folk would do well to wind their necks in for a while. But that won’t happen, will it? The next few months in the Scottish media are going to be a circus of lurid Alex Salmond headlines – le Cirque de Salmond.