I have been a journalist for 45 years of my life and this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write.
I followed every maxim of the honourable trade of journalism and adhered to the BBC’s editorial guidelines in a career spanning the Moon landings, Piper Alpha, Dunblane and Devolution.
But, in a moment of inexplicable personal failure, I jettisoned every principle I had learned and agreed to work secretly for a political master, betraying my colleagues, my loved ones and journalism itself. I was persuaded to turn my political beliefs into an immoral conspiracy by the man who heads the Scottish Government. I agreed to work for the First Minister in a clandestine campaign from within the BBC. The shameful truth is: I was recruited by Alex Salmond.
The consequences are profound…not just for me and the ignominy I now bear, but for the credibility of the BBC at a critical time in our nation’s history and for those others still working on programmes whom I lured into the Nationalist net. There is an explosive story waiting to be told of corruption, illegality, conspiracy and manipulation involving both BBC and government in which I was first a key player then a helpless pawn. The cast includes household names both on screen and in power.
But before I confess all, let me first take you back to May 2011 and the aftermath of the biggest upset in modern political history – the SNP landslide that produced Holyrood’s first majority administration. As a lifelong supporter of independence, if not always an SNP voter, I was thrilled and inspired by the heady mix of optimism and excitement that coursed through Scotland’s veins. Immediately after the declaration and the Salmond presidential victor’s address, I left for the West Coast on a family break.
As soon as I found a spot with mobile reception – overlooking Loch Shiel in Moidart – I called Kevin Pringle, Alex Salmond’s trusted special adviser. After congratulating him on the success, I suggested that one of the SNP’s millionaire supporters bankroll the creation of an information website in which every issue relating to independence could be explained in an accessible and entertaining way. If the site got started before the Unionists cranked up their inevitable campaign of disinformation, it could become a trusted source of objective information ahead of the referendum.
His response surprised me. “Actually, Derek,” he said. “He asked me to phone you. Can you come to St Andrews House on Monday morning. He wants to talk to you.” That meeting was to change my life.
I had known the man behind the dark wood desk since 1987 when I interviewed him for Reporting Scotland just before he won his former seat of Banff and Buchan. We had formed a rapport based on verbal jousting and a shared belief – that the time was coming for Scotland to redeem her ancient right to sovereignty. He had been slim and coltish then. The figure confronting me in St Andrews House was portly and jowly and instead of a mischievous flash, his eye had a steely glint. He got up and swung his arm in a wide arc, hand open, to grasp mine in a powerful affirmation of our old bond. “Today is a new world,” he said. “It requires new thinking.”
For the next hour I learned how the British state was mobilising to defeat the will of the people; how heads of state were being asked to keep quiet, international organisations chivvied into endorsing a united Britain and editors massaged and threatened into following the official line.
The same thing happened over Lockerbie when the intelligence service briefed editors that Libya was responsible for the bombing not, as previously indicated, Iran. That just happened to coincide with the West taking on Saddam’s Iraq, sworn enemy of Iran. Those guardians of objective news duly complied.
Salmond painted a picture of a small, plucky outfit battling the massed forces of political power and entrenched unionism in an unfair contest. The Scots would be the losers. We had to think like the Israelis, he said, and use our smarts. We had to utilise every advantage we had, no matter how small, and behave like the Resistance, running in the alleyways, keeping in the shadows and staying ever alert. “And you can help,” he said.
The media was the single most important tool in the struggle and I was at the heart of the most trusted and most widely consumed sector…the BBC. I both developed ideas for programmes and presented them. Was it too much to ask that I skew some items, sound positive about independence, ridicule Unionist claims and just let journalist principles of impartiality slide for a while? To help the cause. For Scotland?
I don’t know if it was the flattery, closeness to power or personal vanity that I could do something for my country, but I said I would see what I could do. We shook hands.
What I didn’t know then was that this was just the beginning. I would not be left to make those judgements myself but would be subject to constant demands for more, to be given orders and to become a tool of Salmond’s spiralling paranoia. If I refused, I would be exposed. Blackmail. And so I was caught in a web of deceit in which I hated myself and lost my self respect.
I think it was self loathing that drove me to greater efforts to deliver for the man who held such power over me. I confess now that, in order to damage the credibility of the BBC, I successfully lobbied the management to keep the Fred Macauley Show on air. The Audience Research Department had identified it was the main reason listeners turned away from Radio Scotland and it was threatened with the axe. I worked the corridors at Pacific Quay, buttonholing executives, claiming that younger listeners thought it was satire and tweeted it while even the Professor of Philosophy at Glasgow University told me he enjoyed discussions on what happened last night on The Apprentice.
I confess too that it was my idea to get rid of trained newsreaders, ostensibly to save money, but in reality, to make sure that producers who can barely read and presenters with no concept of diction, would present news bulletins, turning them into a lottery of misplaced emphasis and garbled syntax.
You will not be surprised to hear that I pushed for 13-year-old schoolgirls to read the traffic report. Hence the indistinct vowels and mispronounced place names. (It’s Stow as in Now, not as in Low and there’s no L pronounced in Alford). I told them it was a community concept linking the BBC with our schools and they fell for it.
When research – jointly funded with the RSPCA – found that Newsnight Scotland was the nation’s cue to take the dog for a walk, I argued that only people over 70 were watching and they were reassured by a programme format they remembered from the fifties. A poll of viewers found the audience referred to the presenter as “Young Gordon”. I persuaded the Head of Programmes that it was refreshing to watch a show which didn’t overload the viewer with information or insight.
All of this delighted Salmond who said the less professional the BBC appeared, the less impact it’s pro-Unionist propaganda would have. “Can you make sure they keep Catriona Renton on air?” he asked. “And how about humiliating them by getting one of the Radio 4 presenters up from England to show them how it’s done. That would give the clearest message that BBC Scotland is stuffed with second-raters.”
That I was successful is confirmed by the finding that less than half of Scots trusts BBC Scotland’s coverage. Meanwhile I ensured that my own programmes challenged assumptions about British fair play by, for example, showing how goal line technology proves that England didn’t win the World Cup. My Sunday papers review show contrasted Telegraph features about wealthy southern children called Lucinda going riding with the down-at-heel lives of the The Broons . I focussed on the Sunday Post political coverage which was sympathetic to nationalism and whose author, Campbell Gunn, was in the network and became Salmond’s adviser.
I was very nearly unmasked by the ever perceptive George Foulkes, whose powers of deduction are honed on the Intelligence Committee. He tried to flush me out by tweeting that I was biased. Tried but failed.
But the next stage was daunting. I was to recruit a network of sympathisers to infiltrate all output. Such was the low morale among my colleagues caused by a dysfunctional management that in the space of a few weeks I had a list of 12 willing clandestine supporters all subtly changing scripts. That list I have today handed to the BBC. They all face dismissal but I have pleaded for clemency by saying they were duped by me.
Key among them is one of the best known faces in Scotland, a fixture on national television, who may now follow me into ignominy. Her nightly appearances on Reporting Scotland have undergone nuanced adjustments. From research conducted at the Poynter Institute of Journalism in St Petersburg, Florida, http://www.poynter.org I learned how to promote a subconscious message while broadcasting. If you observe closely you will hear a momentary pause before she says the words “Scottish Government” to give it emphasis and on completion, she will smile faintly to leave an optimistic sense in the mind of the viewer. When she mentions “Labour leader Johann Lamont”, her brow gently furrows and her timbre drops to indicate something sinister. It is by these tiny measures that public perceptions are formed.
In the final days before the referendum we had a Wardrobe Plan in which her outfits would turn from sky blue to an ever darkening navy until, on voting day, it was to be Saltire Blue with white piping, mimicking the national flag. A specially prepared locket would be prominent on her throat of a celtic design in which the SNP symbol could be discerned. Such was our attention to detail. But all to no avail.
I could stand the hectoring and humiliation of the power-mad Salmond no longer and in June insisted on an early retirement from the BBC. For three months I have considered what to do. This confession is the result. I still believe in independence but urge the Nationalists to ditch Salmond now before it is too late. If he wins and takes power with all the levers of power, he will ruin Scotland with his megalomania just as he ruined me. Next week: How I recruited Dotaman.