Tonight the Olympic Torch arrived at Edinburgh Castle. There was one person who was unusually absent from such a significant gathering. I don’t know how much say Leveson witnesses get in choosing the date that they appear, but I can’t imagine our First Minister Alex Salmond would have deliberately chosen a court date in London over a major event at home in Scotland.
He didn’t look so disappointed, though. He had the manner of someone who was enjoying the experience far more than could be considered decent. Alex Salmond always loves going south of the border and holding court. He charmed and he smiled. In fact, I don’t think he stopped smiling the whole time.
I laughed out loud when I saw that Willie Rennie had likened his performance to being more like a visit to The One Show sofa than a Court of Law. His witness statement is fairly sparse in detail and his oral evidence did not tell us much more apart from his one great revelation. Why he could not have told the Scottish Parliament first whether his phone had been hacked or not is beyond me. It’s not as if he hadn’t had the chance – he had refused to answer questions about it. He said he had no evidence to suggest that it had been. However, he went on to say that he thought that the Observer had accessed his bank account in the run up to the first Holyrood elections in 1999. Salmond didn’t give much away on the substance of his dealings with Murdoch, but there was definitely too much information in this story. He recounted how the person who told him about the access to the bank account saw that he’d been at a shop called Fun and Games on Linlithgow High Street and thought that it might be “more than a conventional toy shop”.
Willie Rennie has had Salmond on the ropes several times over his dealings with the Murdoch companies. I recounted these in April. He was barely tested today, however. He wasn’t really confronted about his decision to downplay phone hacking in the article he wrote for the first issue of the Scottish Sun on Sunday. Was that in exchange for Murdoch’s support in the election? He wasn’t challenged on his approach to Murdoch to persuade Sky News to have a debate with just him and hapless Labour leader Iain Gray in the run up to last year’s Holyrood election. He was prepared to lobby Vince Cable over the BSkyB bid on the pretext of it protecting jobs in Scotland without it being clear how they were at risk.
Willie Rennie had this to say about Salmond’s appearance today:
Mr Salmond clearly thought that rather than being on the stand at the Leveson Inquiry he thought he was sitting on the sofa at the One Show.
From recommendation for books and theatre shows to the pleasures of golf in Scotland, Mr Salmond danced around questions, merrily ignoring the seriousness of the issues that are being dealt with.
Mr Salmond failed to provide evidence that he didn’t trade support for News International on phone hacking in return for political support from the Sun and News of the World. He put his interests above those of the phone hacking victims.
All in all a cosy rather than an illuminating appearance. Clearly Robert Jay’s questioning does not trouble the First Minister as much as Willie Rennie’s.
* Caron Lindsay is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings