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Alex Salmond’s retrial by TV in a desperate documentary only showed the BBC isn’t as impartial as it claims to be

Chris Sweeney
Chris Sweeney

Chris Sweeney is an author and columnist who has written for newspapers such as The Times, Daily Express, The Sun and the Daily Record, along with several international-selling magazines. Follow him on Twitter @Writes_Sweeney

Chris Sweeney is an author and columnist who has written for newspapers such as The Times, Daily Express, The Sun and the Daily Record, along with several international-selling magazines. Follow him on Twitter @Writes_Sweeney

Alex Salmond’s retrial by TV in a desperate documentary only showed the BBC isn’t as impartial as it claims to be
Short on new information and heavy on insinuation, ‘The Trial of Alex Salmond’ felt like a hatchet job on Scotland’s former first minister following his acquittal on attempted rape and sexual assault charges.

One of the closing statements in the BBC’s documentaryThe Trial of Alex Salmond’ was telling. Presenter Kirsty Wark stated: “In a way, this story is only just beginning.”

It was a curious way to wrap up an hour-long programme about a criminal case in which the accused has been cleared of all charges.

Back in March, Scotland’s former first minister was found not guilty on 12 counts of attempted rape, sexual assault and indecent assault, and found not proven on a further charge of sexual assault with intent to rape, while another charge was dropped by prosecutors.

The case was a blockbuster, because Salmond had been a popular and long-term leader of Scotland, and also the driving force behind the country’s 2014 independence referendum.

While many high-profile men have been involved in similar cases around the globe, Salmond is one of the few who has been found innocent.

So, the documentary was much anticipated with regard to what light it would shine behind the scenes of one of the most gripping trials of recent times in Britain. However, it did none of that.

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Neither legal team spoke, apart from a very brief informal comment outside the court from Salmond’s QC. Salmond was not involved in the show, either. Several journalists appeared but had no expertise, aside from general summations, to contribute.

A few of his accusers did take part, with their identities and voices masked. Their claims were all that was really discussed, a rehashing of their statements in court, which are readily available online.

The tone was struck early on when Wark volunteered the terms “bully” and "touchy feely” during a dialogue with one of the show’s talking heads about Salmond.

It instantly came over as a leading question, to subtly instill a mindset in the viewer regarding what the documentary was really about. Later on, there was again a fair bit of exploration around the #MeToo movement and whether this empowered women to stand up together. The issue is valid of course, but this wasn’t the forum.

The documentary was supposed to be about Salmond’s trial. Viewers sat down expecting to be taken into the heart of the proceedings and provided with a new layer of understanding of something that had shaken Scotland – and Britain – to its core.

So why did the BBC use a clip of an unnamed gentleman informing Wark – on the street outside the High Court in Edinburgh as the trial progressed – that Salmond was inside the court building shouting at his lawyers?

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The chap even admitted that he hadn’t heard anything, but that “someone who went to the loo” had and passed it on. Was this unverified account kept in to cast aspersions that Salmond was furious at this legal team because the case was going badly?

This was the undertone throughout, which culminated with a statement at the end of the TV broadcast – and details on the BBC’s iPlayer – referencing a website which offered assistance to those suffering from sexual abuse or violence. This at the end of a documentary on a trial which found no sexual assaults took place.

Nothing new was aired, and there was no unheard evidence, nor were there credible claims that could cast doubt over the verdicts.

It seemed to be a simple hatchet job to besmirch Salmond’s innocence, handed to him by a female-majority jury of his peers.

And there are two other key issues that cannot be ignored.

The first is the choice of presenter. Wark is a BBC veteran and stalwart of ‘Newsnight’, which carries weight as a platform for serious journalism.

That aside, in 2007 the corporation had to issue an apology following an interview with Salmond by Wark on that very show, for being "rude and dismissive.”

Previously she had been mixed up in a scandal, as the former Scottish first minister, Labour’s Jack McConnell, was revealed not to not have listed in the MSPs’ register of interest that he and his family had holidayed with Wark’s family at her villa in Majorca on two separate occasions.

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Obviously, McConnell and Salmond were the two main political leaders in Scotland at a certain point, on opposite sides of the debate about leaving the United Kingdom.

Also worth considering is how the BBC views the idea of Scottish independence, the goal Salmond has dedicated his life to. He had previously accused it of biased reporting, and this programme certainly didn’t paint him or the SNP in the most positive light.

The decision to broadcast a documentary about a man cleared in court by a jury had no substance. You can’t help feel that if it hadn’t been Salmond in the dock, then the idea would have been canned.

At no point did it feel like it was a look at the trial, more a roundabout examination of the underbelly of Salmond’s character. And it ended up coming across as a petty attempt to stick the knife in.

It was completely unbecoming of a broadcaster like the BBC, which prides itself on a reputation of impartiality and quality newsgathering. This had neither.

It was, in fact, the retrial of Alex Salmond, with very shoddy parameters.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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