The Trial of Alex Salmond



AN Edinburgh morning in spring. Sunshine on Leith and a verdict in the Alex Salmond trial. The former first minister, cleared of all sexual assault charges, had just delivered his pandemic-inspired address outside the High Court in Edinburgh.

“Go home,” he told the crowd, “take care of your families, and God help us all.”

As one, the media pack erupted. An unmistakable voice rang out. “Alex Salmond! Alex Salmond! Kirsty Wark! BBC!” It was like the voice of le tout Scotland calling a subject to account.

As such, it set the tone perfectly for this hour-long documentary. This was indeed the trial of Alex Salmond, played out all over again.

Ms Wark and producer-director Sarah Howitt (the latter also made The Papers, about The Herald and its sister titles) set themselves a difficult, three-fold task.

First, Ms Wark would be filmed on each day of the trial, reporting the evidence and giving her take, all of this done before the verdict was delivered.

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At the same time, she investigated claims that the trial, and earlier allegations made against Mr Salmond, were part of a conspiracy in the SNP to stop him returning to frontline politics.

Finally, she spoke to three of the women who gave evidence against Mr Salmond. It would be their first television interviews.

The first element worked brilliantly, with the programme giving a colourful, gripping sense of a big trial unfolding. It was all here, from the over-caffeinated press pack (someone heard Salmond shouting at his lawyers!) to pizza on the pavement and the wait for a verdict.

It was the rest of the film that was concerning. The initial problem was practical. The alleged victims had their identities concealed and their words were spoken by actors. Care had been taken to distinguish the first interview from the second – Ms Wark was in the room for one, listened to the other over an iPad, for example – but the third was hard to tell from the first. Further confusion was caused when the court evidence, also read by actors, was aired.

Then there were the interviews with the women in general. Taken with Ms Wark’s observations as the trial went on, it felt like the proceedings were being repeated. Except this time Mr Salmond was not there to defend himself. It was only in the final third of the film that Ms Wark said he did not respond to requests to appear.

READ MORE: Women from trial give first TV interviews. What do they say?

While various commentators and journalists gave either a neutral or lukewarm assessment of Mr Salmond and his character, it was largely left to Jim Sillars, former deputy leader of the SNP, and SNP MP Kenny MacAskill, to speak up for the ex-FM, and speak to his claims of conspiracy.

Once again, obvious care had been taken to make the programme balanced. But Mr Salmond’s absence was so glaring, so fundamental, that the documentary inevitably began to seem tilted against him, particularly when the three women were allowed to have their say unchallenged. The question was being raised, but not answered, as to who was telling the truth here. References to the #Me Too movement also coloured the tone.

It is not journalism’s job to be judge and jury. That, after all, is what judges and juries are for. Nor should the plug have been pulled on the film because Mr Salmond declined to be interviewed. Journalism would be in a sorry state if anyone could veto a story simply by refusing to comment. He was given the chance to have his say. He chose not to take it.

Similarly, why should the three women interviewed be denied their say? Mr Salmond fully intends to have his, as he said outside court.

Ultimately, you had to ask whether the film gave Mr Salmond a fair shake. As Wark said, the repercussions of this trial are massive. Today, the first witnesses will appear before Holyrood’s inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of complaints against Mr Salmond. For this reason, and many more, The Trial Of Alex Salmond had to appear far and above the fray on which it was reporting.

From where this viewer sat, it did not pass that test.