Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Richard Baker : "And we did not seek their view either..."

Many years ago, I became reasonably well-read on the scientific research into the human form of mad cow disease. I've probably forgotten about 80% of what I learned, but at the time I was knowledgeable enough that when a news story cropped up on the subject, I was able to meaningfully judge for myself whether it stacked up, and if so what the true significance was. As a result I was genuinely shocked to discover just how often journalists in the quality press and television news - ie. the ones you trust, not tabloid hacks who you fully expect to lie and distort at every turn - make sloppy factual errors, or exaggerate wildly for sensationalist effect. The angle on any given day would always be one of two extremes - the BSE scare was over, or else it was "much worse than previously thought". Either the best-case or worst-case scenario of what the science was saying would be selectively reported to suit the occasion. Nuance was never an option, even when that was precisely what the facts demanded - which they invariably did.

So it really is quite a jolt when you first get to the point of knowing enough about a subject to realise just how amateurish journalists can be, but it's happened to me a number of times since then. Today was an absolutely textbook example. The only thing anyone can find to pin on the SNP government in the documents released on the Megrahi affair is the apparent belief in Whitehall in late 2007 that Kenny MacAskill was looking to do a deal on slopping-out compensation and the devolution of legislative powers on airguns. Alex Salmond has explained very convincingly the good reasons for taking that belief with a bucket-load of salt - if Jack Straw was going to win concessions from his colleagues, it suited his purpose to present the position as "MacAskill looking for a deal". But whether or not we believe that a deal was actually proposed, it's a relatively minor revelation, because it didn't relate to the release of Megrahi. By definition it couldn't have done, because the UK government didn't actually want Megrahi freed at that point - it wasn't until the following year that the policy changed, as a direct result of the diagnosis of the Libyan's illness. When it did, we learn from Gus O'Donnell that London Labour's rather startling strategy for "facilitating" Megrahi's freedom basically consisted of saying as little as possible to the SNP - for fear of "irritating" them! The fact that communicating any desire for compassionate release was seen as totally "counter-productive" tells its own story, and essentially kills the conspiracy theories of any SNP collusion with London in 2009 stone dead.

But have the gentlemen and ladies of the London press noticed any of this? With a few honourable exceptions, the answer is - don't be daft. Even the normally authoritative Channel 4 News baldly claimed at the start of tonight's show that the documents "also show a Scottish government trying to gain other advantages for sending him [Megrahi] back", in spite of the fact that the dates render that a logical impossibility. Upon seeing a near-identical example of journalistic sloppiness (or should that be consciously cavalier treatment of the facts in pursuit of a sensationalist story?) from Paul Waugh, I couldn't resist getting the following out of my system -

"Paul, for the love of God, even the most cursory look at the dates would tell you that conclusion is logic-bending gibberish. The alleged "footsie playing by the Scots" supposedly happened in 2007 - a whole year before O'Donnell claims the British government changed their policy and decided they wanted Megrahi released. How could the Scottish government have gained concessions by offering to do something the UK government didn't actually want at that point? Hint - they couldn't, and therefore, fairly obviously, they didn't.

The allegations of a proposed deal - which Alex Salmond has refuted strongly, and offered credible reasons for doubting - related solely to the possibility of the Scottish government dropping their public opposition to a PTA with Libya that didn't specifically exclude Megrahi. That would have been a relatively minor shift on their part - but it was, for the record, one they didn't make. This is pretty basic stuff, and all in the documents. Now forgive me for lapsing into cliché, but the fact that so many London-based correspondents seem incapable of comprehending what is there for them in black and white really does call the standard of journalism in this country into severe question."

But however frustrating the distortions of today have been, I'm in little doubt that the SNP have taken a stride forward as far as the "long game" is concerned. On all the salient points, the documents bear out what they've been saying all along, and have left Labour - especially Scottish Labour - looking like rank hypocrites. The latter now have very little option but to stick to the absurd line that "if Iain Gray had been First Minister, Megrahi would still be behind bars", but there can't be a single person in Scotland who seriously believes that anymore. Whether Gray's personal stance in 2009 was sincere or not (and I have my doubts), the only premiership of his in which Megrahi wouldn't have been returned to Libya is a purely theoretical one in which he paid no attention whatever to the wishes of his colleagues in London. Everyone knows that could never have happened, because he's Labour, and the first loyalty of Labour First Ministers is always to the UK party leader - not to his or her own values, let alone to the people of Scotland.

Thankfully, one news source we can absolve of the charge of sloppiness tonight is Newsnight Scotland, which zoned straight in on the key question - when Scottish Labour were sanctimoniously denouncing the decision to release Megrahi, had they already been told that their London masters wanted him freed? Richard Baker's answer when pressed on that point spoke volumes -

"And we did not seek their view either."

Note the omission of the obvious word "no" at the start of that sentence. That makes it a non-denial denial, something which generally isn't issued by a politician without very, very good reason.


  1. last night on my way home from work I listened to Richard Baker's press statement - or whatever it purported to be - and felt physically sick to the well of my stomach at the thought that he might someday weild any sort of power in this country...

  2. Richard Baker really is a moron. The Labour shadow ministerial team are full of morons, but at least morons like Kerr can lie and obfuscate convincingly. Richard Baker is a man who is destined for a career as a list MSP, not because his party can't win seats in his region, but because no one in their right mind would vote for him as their constituency MSP. Hence why he's not even standing for any constituency seats in May.

  3. Hi James,

    Apologies for cross-posting but this is the comment I put on, "Lockerbie, Megrahi and Labour hypocrisy - the truth comes out", post by Joan McAlpine on Newsnet. It points out how Straw ignored Kenny MacAskill's letter when he was discussing deals with Browne.

    I saw the Channel 4 news and I was surprised at how much they focused on the SNP and not on Labour. What Channel 4 focused on was the correspondence between Jack Straw and Des Browne where Jack thinks that Kenny MacAskill is willing to negotiate and they can get the Scottish Government to stop objecting to Megrahi being in the PTA if they make concessions to the SG on the Somerville case (slopping out compensation) and airgun legislation.

    The timing of the conversation between Straw and Browne is quite odd. On the 6th of December 2007 Kenny MacAskill sent a letter to Jack Straw, the UK Justice Secretary, Des Browne, Scottish Secretary and David Milliband, Foreign Secretary in which he states the the Scottish Government's position remains unchanged and that Megrahi should be excluded from any PTA. It's in this pdf on the SG website:

    However Straw and Browne continue a conversation between the 7th and the 19th of December 2007 as Straw and Browne both appear convinced that Kenny MacAskill is willing to negotiate on Megrahi and his inclusion in the PTA. Either Straw and Browne didn't read the letter Kenny sent on the 6th or they were convinced that he was willing to deal, notwithstanding what he said in the letter. That conversation and a lot of other files are contained in this pdf from the Cabinet Office:

    Jack Straw's letter to Kenny MacAskill on 19th December 2007 in which he tells him the PTA is going ahead with Megrahi in it, (reference 23 in the Cabinet Office report pdf), was a little hard to find as it's on the Ministry of Justice website but luckily I can use Google quite well as the MOJ search engine came up with a blank. In that letter Jack Straw does not link the PTA with Somerville and firearms legislation. In fact he refers to Somerville and firearms separately in the letter by saying, "You also asked me on 2nd November about two separate matters - on firearms and the other on Somerville." There's nothing in that letter about not being able to make a deal on the PTA and linking Somerville and firearms to the PTA. Have a read of the whole letter here:

    The Straw/Browne conversation is a conversation which appears to be on a separate track from all the rest of the correspondence. There is no mention of a deal before it, Kenny MacAskill set his position out quite plainly in his letter of the 6th and in Straw's letter on the 19th he makes no reference to any deal or any linkage between the PTA, Somerville and firearms.

  4. eh?
    The Labour Shadow Justice spokesman is not standing for a constituency?

    So, the Labour hierarchy really can just foist him upon us...

    £520 seems a decent investment right enough!

  5. Baker was almost in tears on Newsnight. Baker standing up to his masters in London. Nut. Baws.

  6. Yes, he really isn't a patch on his namesake who used to present the Proms.