Last night the BBC decided to regale the nation with a documentary entitled The Trial of Alex Salmond, or more accurately The Media Trial of Alex Salmond and We’ve Found Him Guilty. There were numerous issues with the programme, not the least of which was that the documentary had started to be produced before the court trial had even begun, and the programme makers were very obviously expecting a guilty verdict. That assumption of guilt pervaded the entire documentary and fatally undermined any pretence that it might have had of being a fair report of the events rather than being a participant in them – and a participant who was hostile to Alex Salmond’s case at that.
Anyone in Scotland who follows politics knows that the presenter of the programme, Kirsty Wark, was a close friend of the former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell and had appeared visibly angry and unsettled when the Labour party lost control of Holyrood to the SNP led by Alex Salmond. The programme was produced by Kirty Wark’s husband’s production company. It was a documentary which had the taste of a dish intended to be served up cold, only those inconvenient not guilty verdicts spoiled its revenge recipe.
The prosecution witnesses were interviewed sympathetically, voiced over by actors in order to preserve their anonymity. And before anyone complains, it is right and proper that the alleged victims of sexual assault are granted a legally enforceable anonymity and I strongly advise anyone commenting on this piece to refrain from saying anything which may identify them. If people who allege that they are the victims of sexual crime are not given anonymity it inhibits them from coming forward. That is deeply damaging to the rights of women, of children, of anyone who ever finds themselves the victim of a sexual assault. Legal anonymity in such circumstances is vital and necessary even if the complaints are later thrown out by a court.
However the problem here is that the impression was given by the BBC that a man who has been found innocent in a court of law can continue to be slighted while his accusers remain hidden behind a cloak of anonymity. There were several references to the Me Too movement, which with the hindsight of a not guilty verdict appear as a not so subtle attempt by the BBC to draw an equivalence between Harvey Weinstein, who has been convicted of rape and other serious sexual crimes, and Alex Salmond who was found innocent in a court of law.
There were some serious structural flaws in the documentary of which the most significant was that there was little effort given to presenting the views of witnesses for the defence. Kirsty Wark found plenty of time during the 60 minutes of this documentary to film herself looking pensively at her mobile phone, but couldn’t find any time to speak to any of the defence witnesses. These witnesses were crucial because their testimony undermined and contradicted that of some of the prosecution witnesses in key respects. Moreover these were key respects which caused the jury to refuse to accept the prosecution case and are therefore vital to any attempt to understand this story properly. The viewer was given none of this. If the intent had been to produce an unbiased and objective view of the trial and the events around it, the voices of these defence witnesses were key. Yet they were absent from this programme.
Witnesses for the prosecution were interviewed sympathetically and allowed to restate their case. This might have been acceptable had, as the programme makers so clearly expected, a guily verdict been returned. But that’s not what happened. What had happened was that the jury had refused to accept key parts of the evidence presented by the prosecution witnesses, and had refused to accept that Alex Salmond’s behaviour was criminal as they had alleged. The result was a programme which appeared to be setting out to convict the former First Minister by other means and without the balance that would have been provided by the inclusion of the defence witnesses.
We were told, quite some way into the programme, that Alex Salmond had refused a request to be interviewed, to which an impartial observer could only retort “nae bloody wonder”. This was a programme which had been filmed, produced, and edited with a guilty verdict in mind and when the not guilty verdicts were returned was quickly and unconvincingly given a light makeover rather than putting the entire thing in the bin where it should probably have gone.
Of course it’s big news when the former leader of a country is charged with serious offences. It is precisely the kind of news story which merits examination in a documentary. Unfortunately this documentary was rushed, biased, and deeply flawed. Its flaws have been compounded by the fact that the story is not yet over. The Holyrood enquiry into the Scottish Government’s (mis)handling of the original complaints against Alex Salmond is still on-going. We have still to hear from the former SNP leader who has told us that, at some point, he will speak and will present the evidence which he claims proves that he has been the victim of an organised and coordinated attempt to remove him from politics for good. Without his voice and evidence, no one can produce a balanced and objective account of what really happened.
However that was never the intention of this BBC documentary to begin with. It set out to be a hatchet job on Alex Salmond, to write a damning political epitaph on a man whom it clearly expected to be a convicted criminal and then to stamp on his political grave. Failing any conviction in a court of law it set out to convict him anyway.
This evening BBC Radio 4 will broadcast a programme written and presented by the journalist Dani Garavelli entitled “The SNP’s Civil War” which purports to examine the rift between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. This is the same journalist who has previously done sympathetic interviews with the complainants in the case against Alex Salmond. The programme is not yet available and so the public has not been able to listen to it, so we must give it the benefit of the doubt, but given that it’s written and presented by a journalist who has close and sympathetic relations with those who complained against Alex Salmond, it is reasonable to wonder just how fair a hearing that the former First Minister is going to get in this radio programme. Going out on a limb here, probably not much of one at all.
The way that the BBC has dealt with the trial of Alex Salmond shows us, if there was still any doubt, that the BBC is not an impartial reporter on politics in Scotland. It is an active participant in framing a narrative which is hostile to Scottish self-determination.
Finally – a reminder that the complainants in this case have a legal right to anonymity. Please refrain from saying anything that may identify them.
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