Leading article

The Crown Office, The Spectator and a fight for a free press

20 March 2021

9:00 AM

20 March 2021

9:00 AM

The power wielded by Nicola Sturgeon and her Scottish government means it’s hard to hold her to account for basic policy failures — of which there are many. It’s even harder to investigate accusations that her aides conspired to frame and imprison someone who had become a political problem for her. The Alex Salmond affair has shown the many ways the public prosecutors in the Crown Office, led by a member of Sturgeon’s cabinet, have sought to censor and redact his allegations.

The House of Commons is immune to the threats and menaces of government lawyers. The notion of parliamentary privilege, a corner-stone of British democracy, means that anything can be said within the walls of parliament without fear of prosecution. David Davis, a senior Tory MP and lifelong member of the political awkward squad, this week took advantage of that privilege to give a no-holds-barred version of the Salmond story — including new allegations. Under British law, the notion of parliamentary privilege is extended to publications, so The Spectator cannot come under legal attack for reporting what is said in parliament.

Here is what we now know. Salmond has suggested that the criminal allegations against him (he was acquitted of 13 charges of sexual abuse) were at least in part drummed up by Sturgeon’s allies in the face of impeding defeat in the judicial review and to remove him from public life. Sturgeon denies she and her allies were out to get him. But her defence has been littered with contradictions.

For instance, she said she only found out about allegations against Salmond in early April 2018, when the internal inquiry was already under way. But Davis read the content of a message between civil servants heading the investigation into Salmond, which described ‘interference’ in the complaints process by Liz Lloyd, Sturgeon’s chief of staff. It was sent on 6 February 2018. If this is true, it means we’re to believe Ms Lloyd — who worked more closely with Ms Sturgeon than anyone — gave no hint about the bombshell allegations against Salmond for two months. We’re also asked to believe that Sturgeon’s husband, the SNP’s chief executive, told her nothing about them either.

When Salmond published his evidence, journalists were given legal advice not to report important parts of it. To do so, ran the argument, would violate a court order preventing the naming of complainants. Salmond’s evidence names no one, so we published it on our website (with one redaction to address this concern).

We duly received a threatening letter from the Crown Office in Edinburgh, so we went to the High Court in Edinburgh and sought clarification: was there any legal impediment to The Spectatorrepeating the Salmond allegations? This mattered, because a Holyrood committee was also investigating them and wanted to publish Salmond’s evidence too. The High Court raised no complaint about the publication, thereby giving the green light to the parliamentary inquiry. Salmond’s evidence was published by Holyrood too, after which the Crown Office censors swooped on Holyrood and bullied parliament into withdrawing the evidence.

We can now disclose that the Crown Office is doing a clear-up job, seeking to expunge remnants of Salmond’s evidence from the internet. It has ordered The Spectator to make further redactions to the Salmond submission. If we fail to comply, we have been advised that we could face penalties in excess of £50,000 (there is no cap), plus huge legal costs we would not recoup even if we win in court. It’s quite a risk, so we must consider removing Salmond’s evidence from our website.

We take solace in the fact it has been available for all to read for many weeks now, and especially over the crucial period when Salmond and Sturgeon gave evidence to the Holyrood inquiry. This underlines the absurdity of the Crown Office’s jackboot approach to a free press, in pursuit of an agenda which suits its political masters.

Happily, the original text remains published by an internet archive service in California, which permanently stores internet pages. This service is valued by researchers who seek originals of documents censored by authoritarian regimes. The Crown Office, as part of its clean-up operation, told us to delete this version too. Luckily this is not in our gift.

The Spectator opened its first editorial in 1828 with the credo written by its founding editor, a Dundonian named R.S. Rintoul: ‘The principal object of a newspaper is to convey intelligence.’ The principal object of the Crown Office has not only been to stop intelligence being conveyed, but to delete intelligence from the public domain.

The hurdle in front of The Spectator now is great. The Crown Office even told us not to tell readers about its demand — but we can’t be silent about its mendacious threats to a free press. Even if we end up succumbing to its censorship, we can still put its methods on record.

This is how the SNP government and its supine supporters operate. The recently passed Hate Crime Act gives them even more powers to menace the press. Scotland is being ushered towards an era of censorship, threats and state repression. The good news for those who cherish the principles of democratic debate — and those of the Scottish Enlightenment — is that this will not happen without a fight.

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