Thursday, 28 July 2011

Return to Lockerbie

Tom Gordon

Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, the only person yet convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, was on display at a pro-Gaddafi rally in Libya this week.

It prompted more political rows, many centring on the wisdom or otherwise of the medical advice which led to his release on compassionate grounds.

If he is still alive when the second anniversary of the release rolls round in three weeks' time, expect an intense revival of the arguments.

At Westminster, the Foreign Secretary William Hague has called the medical advice "worthless", while at Holyrood, Labour leader Iain Gray has demanded publication of Megrahi's medical notes.

Predictably, this has resulted in Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill trotting out the line about Megrahi dying from prostate cancer, and rushing to defend Dr Andrew Fraser of the Scottish Prison Service, who produced the report which led to Megrahi's release.

But Megrahi has been "dying" an awful long time.

What started out as a political debate seems to have evolved into a philosophical one. Yes, Megrahi is dying, but so are we all. At what point does dying overtake living? Discuss.

Second, and most importantly, it should be remembered just what Dr Fraser did.

A Scottish Government spokesman said yesterday: “Instead of criticising a senior health professional, Mr Hague should understand the medical advice to the Justice Secretary came from Dr Andrew Fraser of the Scottish Prison Service.

“Dr Fraser is a professional of impeccable integrity, and he concluded that his clinical assessment was that a three-month prognosis was a reasonable estimate.”

But as I reported last year, Dr Fraser never actually examined Megrahi.

Nor had Dr Fraser ever written a compassionate release report before.

In all 60 or so previous cases since devolution, the local prison GP did that, because they were in the best position to examine and comment on the prisoner/patient.

Usual procedure wasn't followed.

MacAskill can justifiably praise Fraser to the skies for all sorts of things, no doubt, but when it came to compassionate release the good doc was wearing L-plates.

As I wrote last year:

Fraser never examined Megrahi, but consulted reports from four cancer and urology consultants, none of whom was willing to give a prognosis, and the GP at Greenock jail, who said Megrahi’s condition had deteriorated.

The compassionate release appraisal was the first Fraser had made at the SPS.

Until Megrahi’s case, the procedure in around 60 previous cases had been for the primary medical officer – typically the prison GP – to prepare a report for the Governor and ministers.

Dr Fraser’s report was a novelty both for the system and for the doctor, yet it was the sole medical assessment used by MacAskill to authorise Megrahi’s release.

Dr Fraser is not an expert in cancer, but in public health and drug addiction.

It's no wonder that, in an extraordinary change of heart, my Sunday Herald colleague Iain Macwhirter today admits in The Herald that releasing Megrahi was an error.

The case for releasing those medical records is becoming stronger by the day.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Murdoch and Salmond Pt2

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the cosy relationship between the SNP and News International in the run up to the Holyrood election.

In today's Sunday Herald we look at how far back those ties reach - to a time when Alex Salmond was on the News of the World payroll, largely under editors Rebekah Wade (now Brooks) and Andy Coulson.

Here's a slightly longer version of today's piece:

Tom Gordon
Scottish Political Editor

ALEX Salmond is under growing pressure to list his meetings with News International executives after it emerged he was paid up to £90,000 by the News of the World.
The First Minister received up to £15,000 a year for a weekly column in the tabloid for six years while he was an MP, according to his register of interests at the House of Commons.
Significantly, he continued to write for the paper for almost a year after ex-editor Rebekah Brooks admitted to MPs that News International (NI) had paid the police for information.
Brooks was arrested last week as part of an inquiry into hacking and police corruption.
Labour said Salmond’s long relationship with NI meant it was imperative that he now list his meetings with the publisher’s executives since coming to power, as David Cameron did last week.
Salmond wrote his first News of the World column in February 1998, and used it as a platform to promote the SNP and to attack Labour at Westminster and later at Holyrood.
He was billed as “Speaking up for Scotland and its people” and had a News of the World email.
In the same week his first column appeared, Salmond helped the paper with a major scoop - the claim Labour’s Donald Dewar blocked a knighthood for Sean Connery because he supported the SNP.
Salmond was quoted extensively in the piece, and returned to it later in his column.
The story, carried on the front page, was written by chief reporter James Weatherup, who was arrested in April in connection with hacking.
Brooks was News of the World editor from 2000 to 2003, then became editor of the Sun.
In March 2003, as the new editor of the Sun, she infamously told the Commons culture, media and sport committee that NI had paid police officers.
Andy Coulson, then News of the World editor, told MPs he would do so again “within the law”.

However, as the committee pointed out two months later in its report, paying the police for information never falls within the law.
Despite admissions of illegal behaviour from Brooks and Coulson, Salmond continued to write for the News of World until January 2004, when he signed off after 375 separate articles.
It is now known that while Salmond was being paid by the paper, it hacked the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler in 2002 and the phones of relatives of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, the two young girls murdered in Soham.
Salmond wrote at various times for other papers while an MP, including the Herald, Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Press & Journal.
However the News of the World, which he said paid him between £10,001 and £15,000 a year, was his largest recorded source of outside income.
Scottish Labour claimed the SNP had been reluctant to engage in the debate over hacking because of Salmond’s connections to NI.
The First Minister met Rupert Murdoch just months after entering office in 2007; hosted a “News of the World” dinner for Scottish editor Bob Bird at Bute House in 2009; and met James Murdoch, chairman of NI, In January.
In February, the SNP paid for journalist Joan McAlpine (now an SNP MSP) to interview Sir Sean Connery in the Bahamas for articles in the Sun.
The paper later supported the SNP in the Holyrood election - as did the News of the World.
It was only after NI announced the News of the World would close, that Salmond expressed outrage at the phone hacking allegations.
In the first Commons debate on hacking this month, the SNP contributed just two sentences.
During Wednesday’s marathon debate, it managed three.
A Scottish Labour spokesman said: “Alex Salmond would clearly rather we all ignored the fact that he met James Murdoch, wined and dined the Scottish editor of the News of the World, and was even on the NI payroll once upon a time.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Mr Salmond will be publishing a list of all his meetings with newspaper executives and editors since becoming First Minister in May 2007, but we will take the time to publish a full and accurate list, which will show that he has met with a broad range of media organisations.”

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Tobacco giant tells Uni: Cough it up

Tom Gordon
Scottish Political Editor

AN INTERNATIONAL tobacco giant has been accused of harassing Scottish university staff and trying to sabotage their work on smoking by misusing freedom of information (FoI) laws.
Attempts by Philip Morris International (PMI) to obtain raw data from Stirling University’s Centre for Tobacco Control Research have now prompted a call for academic work to be exempt from FoI.
The company, which accounts for 16% of the global cigarette trade outside the USA, has tried for almost a year to get hold of the complete details of a project about smoking and young people.
Stirling University has so far refused, and claims PMI is trying to disrupt its work.
Despite hearing tobacco firms worldwide cynically exploit FoI to derail inconvenient medical research, Scotland’s freedom of information watchdog last week ruled in PMI’s favour, and ordered the University to change its stance.
The Stirling study concerns the proposed selling of cigarettes in plain packaging, a development Philip Morris vehemently opposes.
The firm recently launched legal action against the government of Australia to stop it becoming the first country in the world to move to plain packaging next year.
Instead of eye-catching brands, cigarettes would be sold in plain green packets with large health warnings and graphic colour photos of disease.

Lawyers for PMI wrote to the CTCR at Stirling last August about a project called "Piloting the use of plain packs in a real life environment: experiences of young adult snmokers".
PMI asked the university to hand over everything it held on the project, including notes of meetings and phone calls about it, the terms of reference, research methods, information on the "design and purpose" of the study, any draft reports, and all the data collected.
The University said the request was "vexatious".
However PMI appealed to the Scottish Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, who last week issued a ruling on the case.
In it, he reported that Stirling felt the PMI request was "designed to cause disruption" and divert staff from their work.
Dunion also reported evidence from Stirling about the tobacco industry using FoI law round the world against health professionals, and its belief that effect of the PMI request was "the harassment of the University and researchers within the CTCR’s team".
Overall, that made PMI’s request "manifestly unreasonable and disproportionate", it said.
PMI in turn had argued that it had a "genuine and pressing need" to see the data because the UK government had also floated a move to plain packaging, which would have major implications for PMI and its brands, such as Marlboro and B&H. Dunion ruled PMI’s request was a signifcant burden but not manifestly unreasonable.
He also ruled there was also no evidence, in terms of FoI law, to justify claims of attempted disruption or harassment.
In conclusion, he said the PMI request was not vexatious and found the university had failed in its FoI duty to provide advice and assistanace.
Stirling must now respond to PMI by August 15.
It can either hand over the material, or try to withold it using different criteria.
CTCR director Professor Gerard Hastings said he could not comment on the ongoing PMI case, but said that in general there was "an enormous issue about legislation that was supposed to bring big government to heel being used by big business to stop academics doing their jobs, and to further their own interests.
"There’s a public interest debate about whether university research should be subject to FoI. Is this really what parliament wanted?"
A spokeswoman for PMI said Dunion had confirmed its request was not vexatious, adding: "He also confirmed that PMI had a legitimate interest in seeking the information and ordered the University to respond. The Commissioner furthermore concluded that the information request was not designed to cause disruption or annoyance to the University nor did the Commissioner accept that the request from PMI has the effect of harassing the University."

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Murdoch and Salmond

The Sunday Herald today reports on some of the recent links between the SNP and the Murdoch Empire, culminating in the News of the World Scotland and Scottish Sun endorsing Alex Salmond in the Holyrood election.
Here's the piece plus a previously unpublished section of an interview I did with the First Minister in the last week of April.
By then, the Met's born-again investigation into phone hacking at the News of the World, Operation Weeting, had been running four months.
In January, the paper sacked its assistant editor (news), Ian Edmondson, who was later arrested along with its chief reporter, Neville Thurlbeck, on suspicion of conspiring to intercept communications and unlawfully intercepting voicemail messages.
On April 8, News International had apologised unreservedly to a number of public figures who had been hacked.
A week later, a third reporter, James Weatherup, was questioned by the police.
The Scottish Sun then came out for Salmond and the SNP in the election.

So here's what I asked:

Q: Do all political roads lead to Rupert Murdoch in the end?

AS: No, I’m not sure Mr Murdoch would ever claim such a thing.”

Q: How has your road ended up with Rupert Murdoch and the endorsement of the Sun?

AS: I welcome the endorsement of the Sun newspaper. I think that’s fanastic. It’s the biggest selling newspaper in the country. No politician would want otherwise than to have such an endorsement.

Q: You don’t think it’s double-edged?

AS: I’m sure it’s triple-edged but I’m happy with the endorsement. I thought their edition was excellent.

Q: Can you imagine what your reception would have been like on Question Time in Liverpool if you’d had your endorsement a week earlier?

AS: I honestly think the reception on Question Time in Liverpool was based on what I said, as opposed to who was endorsing me or who wasn’t.

Q: But the point being that some people just loathe the Sun, including [some in] your own party

AS: Well obviously less people loathe the Sun in Scotland less than any other newspaper in the sense that the Sun sells more than any other paper. I’m sure people have likes and dislikes. I’ve even heard some people don’t like the Sunday Herald. For the life of me I can’t imagine why. It seems a perfectly amenable paper to me.

Q: And you’re not worried that many of the executives at News of the World and possibly sister titles are facing criminal charges?

AS: In terms of the endorsement of the Sun newspaper?

Q: Well, News International may have been breaking the law on a large scale

AS: I think we should let the courts decide who’s broken the law or not

Q: You’re not worried about any sort of blowback from that in the future?

AS: I’m not worried about the Sun newspaper endorsing... I’m very happy about the Sun newspaper endorsing the Scottish National Party.

I was watching the Labour reaction to it yesterday. You know, four years ago when the Sun endorsed the Labour party in the campaign, I didn’t spend any time whining about the Sun endorsing the Labour party, I just got on with winning the election. You can always judge political parties by how they react to negative endorsements and how they react to positive ones. I’m happy with the positive endorsement.


And here's what I wrote for today's Sunday Herald:

Tom Gordon

THE rot at News International (NI) has exposed a dark web of connections between the media, the political class and the police and inevitably, some of it has extended to Scotland – most obviously in relation to the Tommy Sheridan perjury case, but also to Holyrood.
Just as Westminster politicians have courted Rupert Murdoch’s fabled empire, so have those north of the Border, including Alex Salmond.
The First Minister isn’t the first occupant of Bute House to do so – Labour’s Jack McConnell had numerous soirees with NI executives – but Salmond now faces questions because he is in power.
During the recent Scottish election, the relationship was particularly cosy, with the Scottish Sun prominently backing Salmond and the SNP reciprocating with increased advertising spending at the paper and free articles.
In an interview with the Sunday Herald on the eve of the election, Salmond brushed aside questions about phone hacking at the News of the World, saying: “I think we should let the courts decide who’s broken the law or not. I’m very happy about the Sun newspaper endorsing the Scottish National Party.”
That endorsement took years to get.
Despite the Sun warning in May 2007 that a vote for the Nationalists would be suicidal for Scotland, illustrating its election day splash with an SNP noose, Salmond was grinning at Murdoch’s side just a few months later when the US-based mogul arrived to open a printing plant at Eurocentral near Glasgow.
“Rupert, you will be particularly pleased that the Scottish Sun is now well established as Scotland’s most popular newspaper,” purred Salmond in a speech reprinted in full in the Sun.
Half-way through his first term in office, Salmond hosted an intimate News of the World dinner at Bute House for its Scottish editor, Bob Bird.
But it was in the run-up to the 2011 election, when the Metropolitan Police’s aggressive new Operation Weeting investigation into hacking was in full flow, that relations between the SNP and NI went to a new level.
In January, Salmond met James Murdoch, son of Rupert and chairman and chief executive of News Corp, in London, officially to discuss “jobs and business opportunities in Scotland”.
The next month, the SNP paid for the journalist Joan McAlpine (now an SNP MSP) to fly to the Caribbean home of Sir Sean Connery to provide a series of SNP-friendly interviews for the Sun.
The paper ran SNP-commissioned polls and revealed a slew of celebrity SNP backers. In mid-April, Salmond addressed an exclusive NI breakfast where business people could quiz the group’s Scottish political editors.
A few days later, the News of the World declared Scotland was “safe in Salmond’s hands”.
By the morning of May 5, in marked contrast to four years earlier, The Sun’s front page also delivered a ringing endorsement under the headline “Keep Salm and Carry On”. It was so popular in the SNP that party staff proudly wore T-shirts carrying a picture of it.

“Some folk knew it was quite dangerous to get involved, as the phone hacking scandal had never disappeared from the radar,” said one senior SNP figure of the alliance with the Murdoch press. “But strategically it made sense after what happened in 2007.
“The irony is that, given the scale of the election result, it’s questionable whether we really needed to do it.”
During last Wednesday’s Commons debate on hacking, the SNP contributed just two sentences. It was only on Friday, after the News of the World’s closure was announced, that Salmond described the hacking as “appalling”.
Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, urged Salmond to “come clean” about his discussions with NI before he secured the support of The Sun and News of the World.
“People will want to know if he raised any concerns about phone hacking when negotiating their support. Was it a case of no questions asked just please support me? Was he prepared to sacrifice anything to get the endorsement?”
The shadow Scottish Secretary, Labour MP Ann McKechin, said: “I have asked Alex Salmond to join me in calling for [NI boss] Rebekah Brooks to resign without delay and am astonished that the First Minister has still remained silent on this key point. He has totally misjudged the mood of the country.”
Patrick Harvie, leader of the Scottish Greens, said he hoped the crisis would lead to healthier journalism and politics: “For more than 30 years we have had a political elite terrified of stepping out of line, pandering to Murdoch’s power and agenda. It’s not just the intimate relationship between David Cameron and the top tier of NI, it’s also evident in the Sun’s endorsement of the SNP.”
And Conservative MSP Ruth Davidson said: “David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg are right when they say the relationship between politicians and the media needs to be reset. Like Icarus, all parties flew too close to News International, hoping to receive the glow of endorsement from The Sun.”
With an external body likely to replace the self-regulation of the Press Complaints Commission, the SNP now has a chance to call for some of the oversight to be devolved to Holyrood.
The First Minister last night said successive Westminster governments had failed to face up to press abuses, adding: “As a matter of urgency, the devolved parliaments and assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland must be consulted about the scope and remit of the wider inquiry into the ethics and culture of the press.”