FRENCHGATE is something very rare in politics – a case of noir et blanc. I have known Nicola Sturgeon as long as she has been in politics. The Frenchgate memo, written at third hand by a Scotland Office civil servant, is a misrepresentation.
There is no way on Earth that Nicola would have said she preferred a Tory victory. She has never had any time for the argument, much beloved by the metropolitan press and Labour Scottish time-servers, that the independence cause would benefit from a Cameron win.
Nicola has never articulated that. On the contrary, she believes that it is best for Scotland, and indeed for progressive politics across these islands, if the coming tartan block locks Cameron out of Downing Street.
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So the memo is inaccurate. Not surprising, really, since the author of the memo clearly didn’t have confidence in it himself, noting that “it might be a case of something being lost in the translation”. And, of course, it was based on a telephone conversation a week AFTER the meeting.
That misrepresentation could be deliberate. It could be accidental. The Scotland Office civil servants are, in my experience, well capable of that sort of naivety. The standards of Government departments reflect the quality of leadership. The leadership of the Scotland Office was Alistair Carmichael and David Mundell. Enough said.
However, while the genesis of the memo may have been incompetent and partially accidental the leak of it to the Daily Telegraph certainly was deliberate and totally malicious. And that is where the dirty tricks lie – the very heart of political darkness.
Civil Service boss Jeremy Heywood has ordered an investigation. A cynic would say that Jeremy must be confident that it will throw up “nul points” as they don’t say in France!
Significantly, Jeremy wasn’t so keen on ordering an inquiry into the Treasury leak during the referendum when an official – by a totally amazing coincidence the son of Alistair Darling’s former special adviser Catherine MacLeod – briefed the BBC on a key Royal Bank board decision 25 minutes before the board meeting concluded!
Of course, such an inquiry into the RBS case would have been in danger of actually finding out who sent that email to the BBC at 10.15pm on Wednesday, September 10. A leak inquiry which discovered the leaker would indeed be “courageous”, as Sir Humphrey Appleby used to say. So scared were Whitehall about the RBS story that just a few weeks ago Sir Nicholas Macpherson sent The Sun and my publishers Harper Collins a letter telling them he was considering consulting his lawyers about me in a last-ditch and futile attempt to get this aspect of the serialisation of The Dream Shall Never Die binned.
So where are the real dirty tricks in the memo story which, over the Easter weekend, achieved the almost impossible and ran as lead story over the entire 24-hour news cycle? The conspiracy is in the leak to The Telegraph in the confident knowledge they would present it in the most damaging way possible for the national cause. Thankfully, I haven’t read Mr Alan Cochrane’s diaries of the referendum. It would eat into my sudoku time.
However, I am familiar with its key indiscretion, which ironically is about him, where he reveals that the unionist cause in the referendum was too important to abide by normal journalistic standards.
Thus any leaker, whether politician or politicised civil servant, from the Scotland Office or elsewhere in Whitehall, could be totally confident that Cochrane’s cipher, Simon Johnson at The Telegraph, would not check the story with the main protagonists – the French and Nicola Sturgeon. After all, why would you allow journalistic standards to get in the way of the Cochrane prime directive to save the union?
And in the world inhabited by The Telegraph, the union is in mortal danger once again after Nicola’s brilliant performance in last week’s TV debate. Something had to be done to blacken her name in the same way that they do to anyone who presents a threat to their cosy establishment club.
Initially, the plot went well as these things often do. The kilted bits of the Mail and the Express dutifully followed the Telegraph godfather’s lead and wiped their front pages to stick the dirk in. This led to the ridiculous sight on Saturday of a Labour Party stall in Glasgow proudly brandishing a copy of the Daily Mail.
Most of this broadcasting bias is merely ignorance. For example, on Sky News, Ed Balls was allowed without challenge to state that the memo was an official record of the meeting. On both channels Miliband was allowed to state that this misleading memo was a “devastating revelation”. On Sky, two journalists – one Telegraph and one ex-Telegraph – were allowed to contemplate the media firestorm story as if they were unbiased observers.
As Professor John Robertson of the University of the West of Scotland pointed out in his research on the referendum, the television media suffers from two huge problems in impartiality.
One is they are network-based and therefore vulnerable to network assumptions. Second, they allow their agenda to be led by a totally biased press. It is difficult to stay impartial if you accept nonsense from The Telegraph as the basis of your story. Little wonder that Auntie BBC is now regarded by so many of us in Scotland as akin to a wicked stepmother in a pantomime. Our national broadcaster is a national disgrace.
There are, of course, exceptions. People who do not allow their journalism to be compromised. And one of them is James Cook of the BBC. I want the following paragraph to be read and remembered by anyone who thinks that it is a good idea or good politics to tar all journalists with the disgraceful Telegraph brush.
In the aforementioned RBS leak scandal – and scandal it was – Cook was one journalist who refused to go along with the establishment cover story that the Treasury was merely responding to journalistic enquiries. He told a startled BBC audience when he was chairing a live debate that he had received the Treasury memo unsolicited. It destroyed the Treasury pretence.
Thus all it takes for a conspiracy to unravel is for a few good people to stand up and say enough is enough.
That is what James Cook did in the RBS referendum story. Unfortunately, he was not joined by enough of his colleagues. In this story the good men and women were the French Counsel General and his Ambassador. The leaker would be counting on a diplomatic silence. What they got instead was the truth, and their story started at that moment to unravel– helped along by the truly great Kevin Pringle leading the SNP briefing team.
Thanks to French diplomatic integrity and Pringle’s homegrown skills, the story has now been turned around. The dark art protagonists are on the run.
“The truth’s a kind of virtue that the ruling classes fear, by the foulest means to crush it they will try”, goes the John MacLean March, while a lie is usually halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on.
Not this time. This time the truth is out there and the boot is well and truly on the other foot!