David Clegg and his persistent pursuit of Alex Salmond: Extracted from: “Break-Up: How Alex Salmond And Nicola Sturgeon Went To War” written by former Daily Record political editor David Clegg and Times journalist Kieran Andrews.
“In the afternoon of 23 Aug 2018 I was working in a quiet corner of a Dundee coffee shop when I received the most memorable email of my life. It was from the Daily Record’s head of news, Kevin Mansi, and contained just five words and a picture. “Anon letter that’s come in.”
The unremarkable introduction meant I nearly spat out my coffee when my phone loaded the attachment, a scanned copy of a 100-word document which had arrived at the newspaper’s Glasgow office that morning. The contents, headlined “Scottish Government reports Salmond to police”, were absolutely incendiary. An anonymous whistle-blower was claiming that two women had made sexual misconduct complaints against the former first minister. The government had investigated the allegations before passing them to the police. A summary of the most serious charge was also included. It described an alleged late night sexual assault by Mr Salmond on a young female civil servant.
The claims were so extraordinary that the natural reaction was to dismiss them as the work of a crank. Yet on an initial reading my instinct was that several elements of the document seemed authentic. The dry language used to summarise alleged behaviour that would ultimately become a criminal charge of sexual assault with intent to rape could only have been penned by a civil servant. The small details also felt right – in particular the use of the three letters FFM to describe Salmond. It was an abbreviation for former first minister that would mean nothing to the general public but which I had heard many times in political circles.
On balance, my judgment was that it was entirely plausible that the account was genuine. It was also safe to assume that if it wasn’t a hoax then we were in a race against time to break the story. If this information had reached us, it would not be long until other media organisations also got wind of it. For all we knew, a similar package could have arrived at the office of every newspaper in the country that morning. We had to proceed with speed, caution and care. I immediately left the cafe and sprinted the half-mile back to my house.
The race was now on to verify the accuracy of the information independently so we could publish regardless of on-the-record confirmation. All the journalists involved were acutely aware that the slightest inaccuracy in any subsequent story could have disastrous consequences.
I began methodically contacting sources who had been useful in recent months in the hope they could provide further corroboration. Tellingly, I found I was unable to get any senior Scottish Government special adviser to answer their phone. Meanwhile, Mansi worked his extensive police contacts. It was not until 2000 hours that we had enough confidence in our information to contact Salmond directly to give him the opportunity to present his version of events.
I was in my small home office when I dialled his mobile number and heard that distinctive voice click onto the line. I had last seen the former first minister the previous year when I took him for a long lunch in Glasgow two weeks after he lost his Westminster seat. His tone was much colder on this occasion. “Yes, David, what can I do for you?” he asked. My heart was pounding as I replied: “We’re doing a story on the allegation the police are looking at. Should I be speaking to a lawyer, or is there a comment I should take from you?” There was a long pause. “And which allegation is this, David?” “The one from December 2013 at Bute House.” “And what’s the detail of it, sorry, David?” “That a staff member at Bute House was harassed or assaulted after a function.”
In the terse three minute conversation that followed, Salmond avoided being drawn on the substance of the complaints and focused on fishing for more information on the status of the police investigation and inquiring into who was the source of the story. He also asked for the allegations to be put to him in writing, a request I duly obliged.
With the Record’s print deadline looming, an urgent conference call was convened to discuss whether to publish in the event of no substantive response to the details of the allegations being received from the Scottish government, Police Scotland or the former first minister. This was a big call for the new editor David Dick, who had only been in the post a few months and was now dealing with the biggest story any Scottish newspaper had tackled in living memory. After a brief discussion, he decided he was happy for us to proceed and I began writing.
At 2132 hours an email from Salmond’s lawyer, David McKie of Levy & McRae, dropped into my inbox. Its contents were breath-taking. He did not dispute the existence of the allegations or even make a threat of defamation action. Instead, he warned that publication would be a breach of privacy and cited the recent high profile finding against the BBC regarding coverage of the police investigation into pop legend Sir Cliff Richard. An accompanying statement from Alex Salmond insisted he was completely innocent of any wrong doing and would fight to clear his name and he would be taking the Scottish Government to court over its botched handling of sexual harassment complaints.
Comment 1: A Daily Record employee had already telephoned the Scottish government press office at 2000 claiming confirmation of the accuracy of the leaked information had been received. Clegg’s assertion that he had been contacted by Alex Salmond’s legal team at 2132 hours did not impact on the decision by the editor of the Daily Record to publish
Comment 2: Clegg’s singular and persistent unfruitful pursuit over many months, seeking from Scottish government employees and civil servants, information that would be damaging to Alex Salmond was in direct contravention of a number of the conditions contained in the news editor’s “code of Practice”. As was the inaccurate reporting of fact evidenced by the malicious and irresponsible headline claiming that Alex Salmond had been reported to the police over sexual assault allegations which was not the case.
The truth of the matter is that on 21 August 2018 the Crown Agent, according to the police informed them of the Government’s intention to release a story of the fact of the complaints to the press and the Chief Constable and another senior officer strongly advised against it and refused to accept a copy of the internal misconduct investigation report.
The exchange of views confirmed the urgent desire of the Scottish Government to get the information into the public domain.
Just two days later, on Thursday 23 August 2018, without informing the police of their decision to ignore their advice not to do so the Government informed Alex Salmond’s legal team of its intention to release a statement at 1700 hours. Alex Salmond’s legal team advised in return that they would interdict the statement pending the outcome of the Judicial Review petition and the government withdrew its intent to publish information to the public. An interdict was not processed on the strength of the government undertaking.
The bombshell was dropped at 1600 hours with the information that the Daily Record newspaper had phoned the Scottish Government press office with knowledge of the story but without confirmation it could not publish. Confirmation was not forthcoming from the Scottish government.
Then, at 2000 hours an employee of the Daily Record telephoned claiming confirmation of the leaked information had been received and the story would be published that night. The story broke at 2200 hours.
A follow up story was published on Saturday, 23 August 2018 containing specific details from the leaked complaints demonstrating that their informant had access to the Permanent Secretary’s decision report or an extract from it.
The leaking of the information was a prima facie criminal act, deeply damaging to the interests of Alex Salmond and a blatant invasion of the privacy of the complainants as well as a direct contravention of the assurances of confidentiality given to all.
The conclusion of the legal authority who assessed validity of the complaints was that they were “sympathetic to the thesis that the leak came from a Government employee”. But legal action action could only be instructed if the police investigated matters and identified the person(s) who leaked the information. More on this in the next article.
Editors code of Conduct
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.
ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information.
(i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.