Alex Salmond’s closeness to Rupert Murdoch, and the lengths to which he would be prepared to go to help him, has been blown open by the Leveson Report.
Leveson accuses the first minister of being prepared to interfere in the BSkyB bid – which “would have rendered the decision unlawful” - and called his readiness to assist News Corp “striking”. The fact he didn’t go through with what he said he would do, though, saves him from the harshest of criticism.
The report (pp 1407-1413, pdf) says:
The history of Mr Salmond’s readiness to intervene in the bid, on News Corp’s behalf, is of real interest. He stood ready to lobby first Dr Cable and later Mr Hunt, prepared to argue that it would be good for Scotland and Scottish jobs.
Had he done so he would have been seeking to persuade a quasi-judicial decision maker to take into account a factor which was irrelevant to the statutory plurality test. Plurality was the only consideration which could legitimately have been taken into account by the Secretary of State. Acceding to Mr Salmond’s argument would have rendered the decision unlawful.
Mr Salmond adamantly believed that he was entitled to make his case and that responsibility for ensuring that the decision was properly taken rested entirely with the Secretary of State. Mr Salmond is right that legal responsibility for taking the decision lawfully rested with the Secretary of State. But it does not follow that he was entirely at liberty to seek to persuade the Secretary of State into error (particularly, if successful, it could potentially have had the effect of giving rise to grounds for challenge).
Neither do I understand how a section of the Scottish Ministerial Code dealing with public sector procurement assists. Mr Salmond’s duty to promote the Scottish economy and Scottish jobs cannot sensibly be understood as requiring irrelevant submissions to be made to a quasi-judicial decision maker.
The evidence does not go so far as to show either an express or an implied deal between Mr Salmond and James Murdoch trading newspaper support for assistance with the bid. What it did reveal was the way in which Mr Salmond was expressly seeking the support of The Sun in the same conversation as he was repeating an offer to assist with the bid. That occurred in the context of a relationship between Mr Salmond and News Corp which had been warming since 2007 and was continuing to do so.
Mr Salmond’s readiness, when the subject was first raised in November 2010 and thereafter, to stand ready to assist News Corp is striking.
Leveson concludes (pp 1418-1423, pdf) that, after the 2007 Scottish elections, Salmond would “no doubt” have wished to do all that was “within his power” to secure the support of The Scottish Sun; lo and behold, “Mr Salmond’s relationship with Mr Murdoch changed after the 2007 election”, and, prior to the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections:
“In early March 2011 Mr Salmond made his ‘pitch’ to the editorial team of The Scottish Sun, and support from that paper was forthcoming later that month.”
Just how much further would Salmond have sought to do Murdoch’s bidding, in regard of BSkyB, were it not for the phone hacking scandal? Is he governing in the interests of the Scottish people or News Corp?