Sunday, February 6, 2011

On Planet Staines, John McTernan going off on one about the SNP constitutes a "smoking gun"

Paul Staines, aka Guido Fawkes, has triumphantly produced an email written by John McTernan (Labour media tart and recreational Nat-basher, but at that point special adviser to the Scottish Secretary), claiming that it is the long-awaited "smoking gun" that the SNP did a deal to release Megrahi. The story also appears in the Mail on Sunday, whose headline hysterically screams "Scottish Ministers offered to free Lockerbie bomber in secret deal to end 'slop bucket' payments to prisoners". Now, I'd gently suggest to Staines that it might have been an idea to keep the email to himself, because although his near orgasmic excitement is clearly blinding him to this fact, the gap between what is contained in the actual text and the ludicrous claims that are being made on the basis of it is several light-years wide. Let's run through some of the problems thrown up by the rather creative "interpretation" of this fragment of correspondence, shall we?

1) The Date. McTernan's email is dated 9th November 2007. Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds because he was dying - or, if you're Paul Staines, that was the "pretext" for releasing him. So if a deal was being done to facilitate that process, you'd think it might just have happened after Megrahi's illness had actually been diagnosed, which didn't occur until well into 2008. If we're instead expected to believe that the SNP were preparing the ground to release him on an entirely different basis (presumably prisoner transfer, which wouldn't strictly speaking have been a "release" at all) then they had an awfully funny way of going about it. At that point they were volubly demanding that Megrahi be excluded from the Prisoner Transfer Agreement altogether, which would have ruled out even the theoretical possibility of his release from a Scottish jail unless his conviction had been quashed. Even purely from a PR point of view, it seems somewhat implausible that they were contemplating moving from that highly popular public position of principled and total opposition to one of "actually, guys, on second thoughts we might as well release him, because we've got some concessions on airguns and slopping out".

2) What was the "deal" actually supposed to be about? From the way the Mail and Staines report the story, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the email spells out that the alleged deal concerned the release of Megrahi. It does no such thing. Indeed, the only clue about what McTernan was getting at points overwhelmingly to the completely opposite conclusion -

"Jack should be aware that MacAskill may well want to portray this as him negotiating with the UK government on an international treaty - though we know that putting a statement of fact into the PTA, to the effect that Scottish Ministers have final say on prisoners in Scottish jails, does not require final say from the Scottish Executive".

So the discussions seemed to be merely aimed at reaching a public agreement over toughening up the language of the PTA, not at reaching a deal over what the SNP would then go on to do if the PTA was enacted, ie. whether Megrahi would be released. The best evidence that it had nothing to do with the latter is that McTernan and the UK government seem to be rebuffing MacAskill's alleged suggestions on the grounds that they don't actually need his permission to conclude the PTA on any basis they see fit. But they certainly would have needed his cooperation (and far more than that) if the purpose of the discussion had been to actively secure Megrahi's release.

3) Second-hand information. It's quite clear from McTernan's own words that he hadn't been present at the "discussion with MacAskill" - he is simply relaying second-hand information based on what officials have told him. And even that information seems startlingly vague -

"but that he [MacAskill] indicated he wanted to do a 'deal'".

Why is the word "deal" in inverted commas here? There could be many reasons, but my guess is that it was intended to convey that it was merely the officials' impression that a deal was being sought, and wasn't something that had actually been stated - that would be consistent with the very careful use of the word "indicated".

4) The name "John McTernan". To coin a phrase, we might wish for more reliable witnesses, especially when something as dramatic as a "smoking gun" is being claimed. Ideally, a document from a Scottish government source, but at the very least from a more sober Whitehall official. It may seem incredible that McTernan would bother with his trademark spinning against the SNP when corresponding privately with another Labour special adviser, but his final paragraph leaves little room for doubt that is exactly what he is doing -

"On Somerville, our law officer believes that Scottish Ministers are having a laugh. They could have ended slopping out by building private prisons but did not have the courage...they lost fair and square - the solution is for them not to screw up again in future."

So let's sum up what this "evidence" amounts to. Well, first and foremost it suggests that one of Labour's Nat-bashers liked to do a spot of Nat-bashing in his spare time. There's a shocker. It also suggests that this completely objective source of information had claimed that his officials' perception was that MacAskill wanted a "deal" of some kind - but as he hadn't been in the room at the time, he was in no position to judge if that perception was remotely justified. Most importantly of all, we know nothing about what the alleged proposal of a "deal" related to, but what little evidence there is in the email points to it being something completely different to that claimed by the Mail and Staines - ie. nothing whatever to do with the release of Megrahi.

And we're supposed to be impressed by that little lot? Dream on, Paul.


  1. In the run up to the General Election they must be dying to get something on a government which has done a more or less good job.

    The "broken promises" mantra from "the Snarl", as you so accurately call him, is a broken record which has run its course. Something that you hear every day has little impact after the 20th time.

    So, in the absence of policy, and with no real complaints over the way the country has been governed over the past 4 years, they are left with this heaven-sent opportunity to bash Kenny and the government with a subject which evokes strong emotions among the public, and offers conspiracy theorists every opportunity to invent any number of madcap possibilities surrounding this man’s release.

    The fact that Julian Assange’s leaks on this subject show correspondence which bears out the Scottish government’s versions of the story (although it may embarrass the UK government) has little effect. Many of the people that they are trying to appeal to will be unable or unwilling to look beyond the spin that Labour put on this.

    It’s cheap, it’s nasty, it’s Labour.

  2. James:

    The "deal" furore appears to have been kicked off by an article on Megrahi in Vanity Fair where the author David Rose refers to an unnamed source. You probably also saw this on Order-Order where I saw the reference.

    "Straw also talked with the Scottish first minister Salmond, and discovered, says a senior official who was privy to their phone calls, that the Scots’ insistence on excluding Megrahi [from the PTA] was more flexible than it might have appeared. Salmond, the official says, made an extraordinary offer to Straw of a quid pro quo, revealed here for the first time. Salmond indicated that the Scottish government would drop its objections if the parliament in Westminster would engineer an amendment to the Scotland Act, which sets out the constitutional arrangements between the Scottish government and the larger United Kingdom. Specifically, Salmond wanted a statute of limitations placed on tort claims by prisoners who alleged they had suffered human-rights abuses in Scottish prisons. This demand was important: Scotland was facing a raft of lawsuits, which had already cost many millions of pounds, from former prisoners in Scottish jails who had, throughout their confinement, been made to use slop buckets instead of toilets."

    The square brackets are mine.

    It's a story with no named source and no proof about Salmond offering to stop asking for Megrahi to be excluded from the PTA which has now been turned into a story about Salmond and MacAskill doing a deal on the compassionate release of Megrahi. I wonder if there's an election coming up?

    There's a good comment on the orginal Rose article on Order-Order.

  3. Thanks for the links, Doug. That Vanity Fair article is quite extraordinary. It starts by making the claim that...

    "New evidence...also suggests that, despite fervent denials, the Scots were willing to cut a self-serving deal with the British government—to let Megrahi go, as London wished, in return for a specific quid pro quo."

    ...but then fails to even attempt to back that up. Is Mr Rose really incapable of understanding the huge difference between the SNP dropping their opposition to the PTA (which - in case he hadn't noticed - never happened anyway) and them undertaking to release Megrahi in return for a "specific quid pro quo"? Given the detail he goes into, I suspect he understands that perfectly well, which makes his original claim...well, a lie, basically. There's no other word for it.

  4. It's not a coherent article.

    One the one hand Rose claims that Salmond was trying to make a deal with Straw. Changes to the statute of limitations in exchange for dropping his objection to Megrahi being in the PTA as if Salmond had some sort of veto on the PTA deal.

    But then he tells us that Straw put Megrahi on the PTA without any deal and with Salmond still objecting.

    How on earth was Salmond in negotiations with Straw when he had nothing to put on the table to make a deal with in the first place.

  5. Ezio Auditore da FirenzeFebruary 7, 2011 at 10:47 PM

    Ezio was getting bored with New Labour's hypocritical behaviour on this issue and as such engineered today's revelations.

    Hope you all found them informative!

  6. A very timely intervention, Ezio!