Like the sea level overwhelming Manhattan in a disaster movie, the torrent of hysteria over a television programme is sweeping away all before it – there goes context, journalistic honesty is bobbing about over here, balance drowning over there. Behind the wash of fury comes the bile and bitterness of those with scores to settle.
Former politician does telly programme – cue outrage. Ah, but not just any politician – the former First Minister. And not just any programme but one on a channel sponsored by an evil state.
Let’s take them in order. What is a retired First Minister supposed to do? There is after all no template since Dewar died, McLeish lectured academically and inquired on behalf of the government while McConnell (the self-declared socialist) went to the House of Lords. You may have missed the media outrage at this now typical Labour betrayal of the working class and of democratic values.
There seems to be a desire on the part of some that he fade from the scene to be forgotten, shuffling into the cloak of yesterday’s man. But why should he? Who lays down how any of us decide to fulfil our ambitions? Salmond is a showman used to living in the spotlight. He was comfortable in the studio environment and took pride in mastering it. Parading in public and operating under scrutiny – and relentless media ridicule – became a way of life. More to the point, he’s good at it. He’s a natural who can play either role of inquisitor or victim. He is profoundly well informed and has the knack of being controversial – gold dust in the media world.
He already has a programme on LBC radio. He has proved capable of sustaining it and hooking an audience. It keeps an energetic mind in gear and maintains his public profile which, as I say, has become important to him. It’s his schtick.
But Salmond divides opinion in Scotland, broadly between those who recognise the gifts of a political giant – in Scottish terms – and those to whom he represents their nemesis. The latter are the losers whose own trajectory was deflected by his rise, whose advance was blocked as he rewrote the narrative and turned elective politics upside down. This isn’t just a career wobble. For some, the Willie Rennies and the Iain Grays, it is an existential crisis from which they never recovered, an historic reverse from which their parties still suffer. Among the journalists too there are the wounded and humiliated. The best bell weather of hysteria is David Torrance, once a studied example of balance, now the shrill and predictable voice of old fashioned Tory Unionism. ‘The biographer of Alex Salmond’ was wounded by Salmond’s withering critique of him.
Salmond simply refuses to fit someone else’s template. He broke the mould in office by giving as good as he got from truculent interviewers and wrong-footing reporters and continues to do so now. The haughty sneering at his Fringe show faded when he sold out the venue. His engagement with the Scotsman newspaper is another sign that he isn’t going away. On the contrary, you can forget the claustrophobia of the academic cloister and artificial professorship. You’re going to hear a lot more from a man who’s driven to do more because he has more to offer. His desire is to transform Scotland and, in office or out, nothing will stop him.
But surely no one in their right minds would work with RT, the government-funded Russian television news channel pouring out nothing but propaganda? Ah, you mean no one like Willie Rennie, Ruth Davidson, Alex Cole Hamilton, Vince Cable or erm…David Torrance? They’ve all appeared on RT and by doing so have either taken the rouble or given credence to the Russian station.
But Salmond’s working for them! Well, he’s certainly becoming part of their output, it’s true but it appears he has sold them a format through his own production company which will make the shows and control the content. He didn’t get hired by RT (as an agent of the Kremlin) or even design the programme for RT. His company saw an opportunity to create a show based on him and offered it to other broadcasters. There were no takers except RT.
But they’re Russian! Indeed they are. And they are registered in the UK and licensed to broadcast by Ofcom who regulate their output. (Just like the BBC). It’s isn’t exactly treason, Lord Foulkes. It’s approved by the British authorities under British law. Ofcom has actually sanctioned RT for unbalanced coverage of Ukraine which indicates there is a bias in favour of Moscow and the British rules on balance work.
Why’s he working for a foreign station anyway? Well, many countries have overseas television news channels sponsored by their governments fundamentally in order to promote their worldview. It doesn’t mean they are always biased or inaccurate or poor journalistically, just that they want their national interests presented to the world. They’re all at it. Including us. The world’s first international broadcast service was the BBC World Service which until 2014 was paid for by the British Foreign Office – a direct state subsidy to a news channel. If you were Russian you might deduce from that the merest hint that the BBC was an arm of government. (It is testament to generations of first class journalists that across the world the reputation for fairness and accuracy of the World Service has been maintained. I have personal testimony to that from fellow writers from a score of developing countries many of whom were confronted by propaganda from their own government.)
Russia kills journalists. That’s true. It may not be actually true in the sense of a court conviction but, still, it’s true. The Russian state under Putin is an uncompromising, corrupt, murderous regime that we should do nothing to promote. Except…one of the first calls Theresa May made on becoming PM was to the Kremlin seeking closer and friendlier ties with Putin. Russian money keeps afloat parts of the financial sector. £80b was moved out of Russia between 2000 and 2004, much of it laundered through London. Behind it were criminals linked to the Kremlin.
If the state can normalise relations with Putin and if we accept his cohorts’ cash in buying up London property and their children in posh schools as well as licensing their TV station, is it now up to Alex Salmond to make a stand?
It shows he has no standards by not making a stand.
Well, in that case we can’t stop there. Because if the benchmark is state behaviour, it means no dealings with Central China Television which you can see on your Sky listings. China has and appalling human rights record from Tibet to political prisoners and record executions of its own people.
What about al Jazeera? State owned by Qatar, it is accused of supporting the jihadist Moslem Brotherhood and aired videos made by Osama Bin Laden while he was responsible for carrying out atrocities.
Oh come on. Russia does violence against journalists.
So does France. They have France24 – run by a government-backed company – giving English language news in the UK. Reporters without Borders reported that the ombudsman is being asked to investigate 10 cases where journalists were beaten during demonstrations in France. An identifying armband no longer protects journalists from assault by security forces, some of it clearly deliberate.
It’s all a matter of degree. If you’re Iraqi you might think the illegal invasion of your country and the deaths of untold thousands aided by British forces was a reason not to trust the BBC coverage.
Indeed, you may also look at the corporate and political activities of Rupert Murdoch and decide he is too vile to deal with.
It’s revealing that the outrage at Salmond’s chosen platform doesn’t seem to transfer to Spanish TV where the state is carrying out an openly oppressive regime against Catalans, covered with curious disdain by the brave Scottish media.
I’ve had dealings with RT myself and trust their Scottish editor Mark Hirst. There is no doubt that Russia has a state interest in destabilising the UK and Scotland is a means to achieving that but it’s a huge assumption to say Mark Hirst or Alex Salmond would actively contrive in that. You can keep in mind the deep background in what dealings you have and only the naïve would do otherwise. Against that, it’s refreshing to know that the lazy assumptions and deferential crawling so evident is much British journalism is being challenged.
Here’s the thing. If Mark Hirst is asked to produce material that is blatantly untrue or partial for a political purpose he is likely to walk. And can you imagine a producer telling Alex Salmond what to say? The fall out from either walking out and spilling the beans would be damaging to RT and Russia.
At least their journalism is asking questions.
I have no actual view on Alex Salmond having a show on RT. I won’t watch. It may be a misjudgement his reputation will pay for but the rush of outrage tells us more about pygmy politics in Scotland than the morality of Salmond. I don’t believe for a minute he is supporting death squads in Moscow but I do think he has discombobulated some of his erstwhile support. But then he is his own man making his own way. He isn’t going quietly into the night.