The Sunday Herald today reports on some of the recent links between the SNP and the Murdoch Empire, culminating in the News of the World Scotland and Scottish Sun endorsing Alex Salmond in the Holyrood election.
Here's the piece plus a previously unpublished section of an interview I did with the First Minister in the last week of April.
By then, the Met's born-again investigation into phone hacking at the News of the World, Operation Weeting, had been running four months.
In January, the paper sacked its assistant editor (news), Ian Edmondson, who was later arrested along with its chief reporter, Neville Thurlbeck, on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications and unlawfully intercepting voicemail messages.
On April 8, News International had apologised unreservedly to a number of public figures who had been hacked.
A week later, a third reporter, James Weatherup, was questioned by the police.
The Scottish Sun then came out for Salmond and the SNP in the election.
So here's what I asked:
Q: Do all political roads lead to Rupert Murdoch in the end?
AS: No, I’m not sure Mr Murdoch would ever claim such a thing.”
Q: How has your road ended up with Rupert Murdoch and the endorsement of the Sun?
AS: I welcome the endorsement of the Sun newspaper. I think that’s fanastic. It’s the biggest selling newspaper in the country. No politician would want otherwise than to have such an endorsement.
Q: You don’t think it’s double-edged?
AS: I’m sure it’s triple-edged but I’m happy with the endorsement. I thought their edition was excellent.
Q: Can you imagine what your reception would have been like on Question Time in Liverpool if you’d had your endorsement a week earlier?
AS: I honestly think the reception on Question Time in Liverpool was based on what I said, as opposed to who was endorsing me or who wasn’t.
Q: But the point being that some people just loathe the Sun, including [some in] your own party
AS: Well obviously less people loathe the Sun in Scotland less than any other newspaper in the sense that the Sun sells more than any other paper. I’m sure people have likes and dislikes. I’ve even heard some people don’t like the Sunday Herald. For the life of me I can’t imagine why. It seems a perfectly amenable paper to me.
Q: And you’re not worried that many of the executives at News of the World and possibly sister titles are facing criminal charges?
AS: In terms of the endorsement of the Sun newspaper?
Q: Well, News International may have been breaking the law on a large scale
AS: I think we should let the courts decide who’s broken the law or not
Q: You’re not worried about any sort of blowback from that in the future?
AS: I’m not worried about the Sun newspaper endorsing... I’m very happy about the Sun newspaper endorsing the Scottish National Party.
I was watching the Labour reaction to it yesterday. You know, four years ago when the Sun endorsed the Labour party in the campaign, I didn’t spend any time whining about the Sun endorsing the Labour party, I just got on with winning the election. You can always judge political parties by how they react to negative endorsements and how they react to positive ones. I’m happy with the positive endorsement.
And here's what I wrote for today's Sunday Herald:
THE rot at News International (NI) has exposed a dark web of connections between the media, the political class and the police and inevitably, some of it has extended to Scotland – most obviously in relation to the Tommy Sheridan perjury case, but also to Holyrood.
Just as Westminster politicians have courted Rupert Murdoch’s fabled empire, so have those north of the Border, including Alex Salmond.
The First Minister isn’t the first occupant of Bute House to do so – Labour’s Jack McConnell had numerous soirees with NI executives – but Salmond now faces questions because he is in power.
During the recent Scottish election, the relationship was particularly cosy, with the Scottish Sun prominently backing Salmond and the SNP reciprocating with increased advertising spending at the paper and free articles.
In an interview with the Sunday Herald on the eve of the election, Salmond brushed aside questions about phone hacking at the News of the World, saying: “I think we should let the courts decide who’s broken the law or not. I’m very happy about the Sun newspaper endorsing the Scottish National Party.”
That endorsement took years to get.
Despite the Sun warning in May 2007 that a vote for the Nationalists would be suicidal for Scotland, illustrating its election day splash with an SNP noose, Salmond was grinning at Murdoch’s side just a few months later when the US-based mogul arrived to open a printing plant at Eurocentral near Glasgow.
“Rupert, you will be particularly pleased that the Scottish Sun is now well established as Scotland’s most popular newspaper,” purred Salmond in a speech reprinted in full in the Sun.
Half-way through his first term in office, Salmond hosted an intimate News of the World dinner at Bute House for its Scottish editor, Bob Bird.
But it was in the run-up to the 2011 election, when the Metropolitan Police’s aggressive new Operation Weeting investigation into hacking was in full flow, that relations between the SNP and NI went to a new level.
In January, Salmond met James Murdoch, son of Rupert and chairman and chief executive of News Corp, in London, officially to discuss “jobs and business opportunities in Scotland”.
The next month, the SNP paid for the journalist Joan McAlpine (now an SNP MSP) to fly to the Caribbean home of Sir Sean Connery to provide a series of SNP-friendly interviews for the Sun.
The paper ran SNP-commissioned polls and revealed a slew of celebrity SNP backers. In mid-April, Salmond addressed an exclusive NI breakfast where business people could quiz the group’s Scottish political editors.
A few days later, the News of the World declared Scotland was “safe in Salmond’s hands”.
By the morning of May 5, in marked contrast to four years earlier, The Sun’s front page also delivered a ringing endorsement under the headline “Keep Salm and Carry On”. It was so popular in the SNP that party staff proudly wore T-shirts carrying a picture of it.
“Some folk knew it was quite dangerous to get involved, as the phone hacking scandal had never disappeared from the radar,” said one senior SNP figure of the alliance with the Murdoch press. “But strategically it made sense after what happened in 2007.
“The irony is that, given the scale of the election result, it’s questionable whether we really needed to do it.”
During last Wednesday’s Commons debate on hacking, the SNP contributed just two sentences. It was only on Friday, after the News of the World’s closure was announced, that Salmond described the hacking as “appalling”.
Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, urged Salmond to “come clean” about his discussions with NI before he secured the support of The Sun and News of the World.
“People will want to know if he raised any concerns about phone hacking when negotiating their support. Was it a case of no questions asked just please support me? Was he prepared to sacrifice anything to get the endorsement?”
The shadow Scottish Secretary, Labour MP Ann McKechin, said: “I have asked Alex Salmond to join me in calling for [NI boss] Rebekah Brooks to resign without delay and am astonished that the First Minister has still remained silent on this key point. He has totally misjudged the mood of the country.”
Patrick Harvie, leader of the Scottish Greens, said he hoped the crisis would lead to healthier journalism and politics: “For more than 30 years we have had a political elite terrified of stepping out of line, pandering to Murdoch’s power and agenda. It’s not just the intimate relationship between David Cameron and the top tier of NI, it’s also evident in the Sun’s endorsement of the SNP.”
And Conservative MSP Ruth Davidson said: “David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg are right when they say the relationship between politicians and the media needs to be reset. Like Icarus, all parties flew too close to News International, hoping to receive the glow of endorsement from The Sun.”
With an external body likely to replace the self-regulation of the Press Complaints Commission, the SNP now has a chance to call for some of the oversight to be devolved to Holyrood.
The First Minister last night said successive Westminster governments had failed to face up to press abuses, adding: “As a matter of urgency, the devolved parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland must be consulted about the scope and remit of the wider inquiry into the ethics and culture of the press.”