With the defence opening its case, the Alex Salmond trial finally had a public gallery open all day, and accordingly I was in court with my trusty notebook. I should start by saying that the contrast with the soul-crushing experience of Woolwich Crown Court and the Julian Assange hearing was extreme. Edinburgh High Court is built for public access, not for public exclusion like Woolwich. You walk in straight off the High Street and the entire design of the building is intended to let the public flow through freely. There are literally no fences, no locked doors, no armoured glass, no enclosed glass cage for the accused. The court itself was impressive; Lady Dorrian presided with exemplary fairness, dealing quickly and sensibly with points that arose on admissibility of evidence. The jury of 15 citizens looked engaged and earnest throughout. The impression of my first day is that it is a process that deserves respect and trust, something I never felt at an Assange hearing.
The day was dramatic enough, mostly consisting of Alex Salmond in the witness stand giving evidence. That evidence was startling. He stated that some of the accusations were deliberate fabrications with a political purpose. He specifically accused Ms A of fabrication, and of recruiting and encouraging five of the other accusers also to make fabrications against him. Crucially he described Ms A, whom he accused of orchestrating the fabrications, as extremely close to Nicola Sturgeon, and did so in terms so graphic and detailed that I cannot repeat them as it would identify Ms A.
On Ms A’s own accusations, he stated that it was “ludicrous” for her to suggest that he sexually assaulted her in the middle of a dance floor when she handed him the microphone to make a speech at the office Christmas party, when all eyes would be upon him. The guests were seated all around the dance floor at tables, and there was a meal. He also stated that Ms A’s claims of his assaulting her during the by-election campaign in July 2008 were fabricated. He had always had minders with him during his presence at the by-election. The events described were public. He did recall seeing Ms A there, but the claims that he touched her buttocks or kissed her lips were fabrication.
On 2 April 2018 Salmond had attended a meeting with Nicola Sturgeon and discussed two complaints against him, which were then subject to civil service procedures. No mention had been made that Ms A was bringing sexual allegations against him, although Ms A had input into that meeting which I must not specify.. This was the meeting at Sturgeon’s home where Sturgeon had told the Scottish parliament she first heard of allegations against Alex Salmond. Salmond stated under oath that Sturgeon had earlier held a meeting on 29 March 2018 to discuss the allegations with Geoff Aberdein, Salmond’s former chief of staff. That is five days before the date that Sturgeon told parliament she first knew of the allegations. That may have wider political ramifications.
Salmond had only found that out from the police almost a year later that Ms A had made allegations personally against him, despite dealings with her over the Scottish government inquiry into the two complaints.
The other accuser whom Alex Salmond was directly accusing of fabrication was Ms H. Salmond stated categorically that Ms H had not been at the dinner with the actor (whose name for reasons I do not understand the court also does not allow me to mention) in June 2014, after which the woman had claimed that Salmond had attempted to have sex with her in the bedroom in Bute House. Salmond also stated that Ms F had not been in Bute House in May 2014 when she claimed that an earlier incident had occurred. The court spent a great deal of time as the defence team took Salmond though the official calendar, the official diary, and the Bute House kitchen records to establish that there was no Bute House event in May 2014 at which Ms H might have been present.
Salmond stated that Ms H’s description of her communication with Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh about possible attendance at a football match the next day could not be true because Ms Ahmed-Sheikh’s father had died the previous day and she had left for London for the funeral, which had Ms H been present where and when she claimed, Ms H must have known.
Alex Salmond did however say that he had an entirely consensual sexual encounter with Ms H in Bute House approximately one year previously. The encounter had not involved penetration or full undress but had been of a sexual nature. It had been initiated by Ms H. He remembered that the evening was the first time he had heard the word “shots” in relation to alcohol, as Ms H had said “who would have thought I would be drinking shots with the First Minister”. He stated that he had then known Ms H for some years working for the SNP in various capacities, and that this consensual encounter had been a case of old friends going too far, which they had both acknowledged and realised it was a mistake, and parted on good terms.
Alex Salmond testified that subsequently in 2015 Ms H had sought his endorsement for nomination as an SNP candidate in an Aberdeenshire constituency. He had not given his endorsement. (You will recall that the court had during Ms H’s evidence seen texts from Ms H appearing to confirm she had sought his endorsement).
At this point I am going to insert out of turn the evidence of the second defence witness, Mrs Isobel Zambonini. Mrs Zambonini testified that she had been working as an employee in Alex Salmond’s constituency office when Ms H had arrived one day to do some paperwork and photocopying, and she had been told that Ms H was there to seek the parliamentary nomination. She had however been aware that Alex Salmond preferred another candidate.
Some days later Mrs Zambonini had encountered Ms H again by her car. Ms H had asked Izzie how she found it working for Alex Salmond. After an initially pleasant conversation, suddenly Ms H had stated “He needs to remember who he is and how he got there, I was instrumental in making that happen”. Mrs Zambonini stated she had been shocked by how quickly Ms H had changed and got angry.
Returning to the testimony of Alex Salmond, this had started with Alex being led by his counsel through a description of the functioning of the Private Office of the First Minister. It was a very high pressure 24/7 operation and officials from the Private Office accompanied the First Minister on all official occasions, including dinners, conferences etc both at home and abroad. The Private Office had about twenty staff, selected by the Civil Service. These were highly sought after positions that often led on to career promotion. Because of the unusual hours and working conditions the Private Office was like a “big family” and working relationships were more informal than may be normal in the Civil Service.
The First Minister had three sets of offices from all of which the Private Office operated. At St Andrews House, in the Holyrood Parliament and at Bute House, which contained both substantial offices and living accommodation.
Salmond was asked about the complaint by Ms B that he had grabbed her arms and attempted to kiss her, suggesting that they re-enact the scene in Ae Fond Kiss by Jack Vettriano, which picture had been delivered to Bute House.
Alex Salmond stated that he rated Ms B highly, as a civil servant who helped him prepare for First Minister’s Questions. The context was that the painting had been donated by Jack Vettriano for the First Minister’s christmas card, and had been the subject of discussion in the private office all day, mostly focussed on how they would tell Vettriano that the card was inappropriate for the purpose and something more sedate required. In the event Vettriano had been very gracious about it and donated another painting named “Let’s twist again”, which had eventually been auctioned raising £100,000 for charity. “Ae Fond Kiss” had ended up as a charity Christmas card for Shelter.
Salmond acknowledged that he had grabbed Ms B’s arms and suggested to her that they re-enact “Ae Fond Kiss”, but he characterised this as part of the running joke and “horseplay”. He said that Ms B had replied as she had testified “Don’t be daft”, and he had desisted. There was no intention on his part to assault or to be indecent.
Turning to the evidence of Ms C, Salmond acknowledged that he had given her and her husband a lift from Pizza Express on Holyrood Road to Waverley Station, but categorically denied that he had put his hand on her knee during the journey, though he acknowledged it was possible he inadvertently brushed her leg. He stated that the woman’s husband was an old friend who had worked for him in two different offices, and he had been chatting with him throughout the journey. Salmond stated the car had been the First Minister’s silver Lexus, in which the rear armrest between the two back seats was permanently fixed down as it incorporated a specially fitted telephone. It would be impossible surreptitiously to put your hand on somebody’s leg without being seen reaching over the armrest.
On the accusations of Ms D, Salmond said that she was a civil servant whose work he valued very highly. She had very curly hair which sprang back if you pulled it. This was a joke in the office and Salmond said that other members of the office also sometimes tugged at Miss D’s hair in jest. Asked about an incident on an official visit to China, Salmond explained that the visit to China had been extremely important and hard working and had included a meeting with Premier Li and a Memorandum of Understanding on Chinese investment in Grangemouth petrochemical complex and on Scottish salmon exports to China. Salmond acknowledged that he had stroked Ms D’s face while she was sleeping, but said it was as the car in which they were travelling arrived at the internal border with Hong Kong where there would be a document inspection, and he had stroked her face in order gently to wake her up. It had no sexual motive. He also acknowledged that on that visit he had reached out to tug her hair in a lift as witnessed by Donald Cameron, but said this too had no sexual motive.
Salmond acknowledged that he had, as Ms D testified, interlinked arms with her while they were buying ice creams for the team at the Ryder Cup in Chicago. He stated there was no sexual motive and it was an example of the informal nature of the Private Office when on mission. They had been attending the Ryder Cup for meetings as Scotland was hosting the next one at Gleneagles. He acknowledged further that Ms D had shown him a bikini shot of her holiday in Jamaica. He agreed that he had told her that she looked like Ursula Andress in Dr No.
Asked by Defence counsel whether he now regretted his behaviour, Alex Salmond said that obviously from his position in the court he did, and he should have been more aware of intruding into people’s personal space. But incidents which nobody deemed serious at the time were now being exaggerated. His counsel, Gordon Jackson QC, asked him why that might be. Salmond replied that some of the allegations were fabrications for a political purpose, whereas others were little incidents which were now being reinterpreted in an entirely different way in the light of the police investigation of the last eighteen months.
Salmond was next asked about the accusation by woman G that he touched her bottom at the Ubiquitous Chip restaurant in Glasgow. Alex Salmond replied that he recalled the incident well. They were late for a dinner where they were meeting with an important figure from the oil and gas industry. He had arrived with Ms G, who was a SNP functionary figure, his wife Moira and one other. The contact had occurred when he gave Ms G a “friendly shove” in the back to hasten her up the spiral staircase, where she was “dithering and talking”. His wife Moira had been between Alex and Ms G when he reached up to give the shove.
Ms G had later moved into the career civil service. She had been present as duty Private Office official at a dinner in George St which had happened rather spontaneously to toast the arrival of Kevin Pringle’s new baby. She had been concerned that, now a civil servant, she ought not be present at what might be seen as largely a political party event, and had been particularly concerned when a picture of her there had been tweeted out.
After the dinner, she had returned with Salmond to Bute House with the ministerial box to go through the papers and correspondence ready for the morning, as ministers do with their private secretary on duty every evening. She had been very upset when there. She had not told Salmond why and he now knew it was because of the tweet. He had known her for over six years, from before she became a civil servant, and had put his arm around her to comfort her and ask what was wrong. There was no sexual motive.
Salmond was then asked about the testimony of Ms F, who was at the time an SNP press officer. He described the evening in question. It was in the final few days before the 2014 Independence referendum. The BBC had just announced that if Scotland became Independent, the Royal Bank of Scotland would move its HQ to England. Salmond had an 8am television interview on Good Morning Scotland the next morning and a major speech at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre at 10am. An opinion poll had just shown a Yes lead, and the RBS announcement had the capacity to derail Independence.
Returning from an event in Glasgow to Bute House with press officer Ms F, arriving after midnight, he had been for a very long time on the phone trying to raise the Chief Executive of RBS for clarification. They also had to amend his speech for the morning to take account of the new development. Ms F had testified that she had found Salmond lying on the floor, and he had invited her to lie down beside him. Salmond stated that it had always been his working method, his whole professional life, to lay out his speeches on the floor to look over them and make changes. He was asked whether there was any physical contact with Ms F, he replied none whatsoever, except that when they finished preparation for the morning, which was about 3am, he had tapped her on the nose when saying goodnight.
At one point when they were waiting in the early hours for feedback from Ross McEwan of RBS to incorporate in the speech, he had taken Ms F on a tour of the state rooms of Bute House as she had not been there before. It was then he had told her the amusing story about the journalist passing out in front of a portrait which they stood before, at a party.
On the accusation of Ms E that he had touched her buttocks during a photograph at Stirling Castle, Salmond denied this, he had been hosting a dinner at Stirling Castle and afterwards all of the participants had taken a photo of him and the lion rampant flag, because it had been the first occasion that Scottish flag had flown at Stirling castle since 1707. Salmond said there was whole series of photos of him on the occasion with his arms around people, and it was standard for a politician. He regretted not having been sensitive to the fact that Ms E had not wished to join in with the picture taking. His wife Moira had been present, and the next day they had travelled with Ms E to Gleneagles.
Alex Salmond was then asked about the allegation of Ms F. He said that Ms F was another excellent civil servant. He said that the alleged incident in September 2013 was true. He had said goodnight to her and gone to kiss her cheek, but as they moved he had made fleeting contact with her lips by accident.
On 4 December 2013 they had returned from Holyrood to Bute House about 8pm with a great deal of work to do in the ministerial box. There was First Minister’s Questions to prepare and the Clutha helicopter disaster had just happened. The White Paper on Independence had just been published and there was a great deal of correspondence and paperwork arising from the China visit.
They did all of this except the Chinese papers and then had dinner at Bute House. As Ms F had testified, the heating in the office floors of Bute House had broken down. It was December and very cold so they went up to the bedroom which had heating and a table and chairs to work at. Ms F had taken her boots off which, Salmond said, she always did when indoors, unless in a very formal situation.
Salmond said that as they were working on the Chinese papers it seemed appropriate to take up a bottle of Mai Tai with which they had been presented on the China trip, and they had drunk some of this while they were working. They became tipsy. Salmond said they were both drinking about equally. After finishing, Ms F had gone and sat on the bed in order to put on her boots. Gordon Jackson QC asked Salmond if he had instructed Ms F to get on the bed, as she alleged, and Salmond replied firmly “no”. Salmond had gone across to hand her the folder, and they had embraced goodnight and then fallen in to what he described as a “sleepy cuddle”. Ms F’s feet were on the floor, they were lying on the bed and Salmond had one arm under her and one arm over her. Both were fully clothed.
Asked if the thought this was appropriate, Salmond said no, it was not appropriate, he was First Minister and he ought not to have done this.
After a short time, Ms F said “I’ll have to be going. This isn’t a good idea” and Salmond replied “no, this is a very bad idea” and they got up. She said “Goodnight First Minister”, he replied “Goodnight [christian name]”, and she left. He now knew she finished some work in the office downstairs before leaving Bute House.
Salmond was asked if he grabbed her buttocks, he replied no. He was asked if she struggled, he replied no. “It was a cuddle”.
A few days later, Salmond was approached by his Principal Private Secretary Joe Griffin, who said that Ms F had told him there had been a cuddle and a kiss, and she wanted a meeting and an apology. This meeting had happened very quickly. He had apologised. It should not have happened and was entirely his fault. She had asked if it would affect her career and he had said no, he took full responsibility. He had asked whether she wished to continue to work in the Private Office and she had replied that yes, she did. She had asked for an assurance there would be no recurrence and he had given that.
Gordon Jackson put to Alex Salmond that the charge was an intent to rape. Salmond said never, this was not true, he had never attempted a non-consensual sexual act in his life and never would.
Salmond stated that the accusation had changed over time. Joe Griffin had given a fair account as prosecution witness of what Ms F had alleged at the time. This had now developed into an accusation that he groped her and touched her underwear. This was a new and recent ramping up of the accusation.
After Alex Salmond’s cross examination by the defence counsel had finished, the prosecuting counsel, Alex Prentice QC, stood to cross examine him. The questioning of the accused by the prosecutor is normally the most dramatic moment in any criminal trial, and Prentice plainly intended this should be no exception. He had the Jack Vettriano painting displayed on screens and asked:
“Did you for one moment consider Ms B’s feelings when you grabbed her hands and asked her to re-enact the kiss?”
Alex Salmond replied that it was a joke, part of a running joke that had been going through the day, and he had expected Ms B would understand the suggestion was not serious.
To which Prentice responded:
“Did you for one moment consider Ms B’s feelings when you grabbed her hands and asked her to re-enact the kiss?”
And Prentice continued to ask the same question six times, irrespective of what Alex Salmond said in response. What Salmond said in response included that Ms B was a personality who was particularly partial to jokes and horseplay, and gave no indication of taking any offence at the time.
Prentice then went on to ask why Salmond had done this when nobody else was in the room. He replied that it was towards the end of the working day and people were popping in and out of the Private Office continuously. Obviously he now regretted not having had more respect for Ms B’s private space, but completely denied any struggle or force.
Prentice asked whether Salmond had instilled fear into his Private Office staff. Salmond replied that was neither his belief, intention nor perception. Prentice said they had heard evidence that some people were intimidated by Salmond. Alex replied that he accepted that was true for those people, but it was not the general case. Prentice replied that they had heard from one witness that the stress of working in Private Office had caused mental health difficulties. Salmond replied that he accepted that was true for that person.
Prentice went through the various accusers, asking Salmond in each instance to state the age gap between them, and supplying the answer in each case. He was anxious to impress that in general Salmond was about 30 years older than his accusers. He asked Salmond if he had respect for women. Salmond replied yes, he had equal respect for the women and men he had worked with.
Prentice asked whether Salmond thought tugging hair was acceptable and whether he had not seen women flinch. Salmond said it was lighthearted in context and that had not been the reaction at the time. His behaviour had not been sexual.
Prentice asked whether Salmond’s behaviour with Miss F had been acceptable. He was 58 and she was 29. Did he advance drinking alcohol as an excuse? Salmond said no he did not, and he had acknowledged responsibility for unacceptable behaviour. But there was no struggle, they were both fully clothed, and feet on the floor.
Prentice stated that “you had however, on an earlier occasion, kissed her”. Salmond replied that he had, but he had inadvertently brushed her lips when he had gone to kiss her cheek. Prentice expressed scepticism that this could happen. Salmond replied that in his experience it on occasion did.
Prentice then asked if Salmond realised how demeaning it would be for a woman to be smacked on the bottom. Salmond replied yes, he did, but he had not done that. He had given Ms G a push up the staircase. Prentice asked whether he denied saying to her “what I would do to you if I was 26” when “comforting” her at Bute House. Salmond said he did deny this. He had been telling her she was a talented young woman with a big future in front of her, in order to comfort her when she was distressed. Prentice asked whether Salmond alleged Ms G had misread the situation. Salmond replied yes.
Prentice stated that Salmond had claimed the attempted rape charge by Ms H had been based on an earlier consensual encounter initiated by Ms H on 16 August 2013. He again stressed the age difference. He said that the truth was that Ms H was indeed at the dinner with the actor on 12 June 2014 and that afterwards Alex Salmond had tried to rape her. Salmond said no, it was not the truth.
Prentice said “you did behave as described”. Salmond replied “no, I did not.”
“The truth is, she was there” : “No, it is not”.
“You tried to rape her” : “No, I did not”.
Prentice asked why Alex Salmond had told Ms F a story involving a penis. Did he think that was appropriate, alone in Bute House in the early hours? He was 31 years older than Ms F. Salmond replied that he had explained the context of why he had told the entertaining story about the passed out journalist under the portrait, while they were waiting for more information to come to finish off the speech and interview briefing. Prentice said that Salmond had proceeded to attempt to kiss her on the face and lips. Salmond replied that he had not. It was an extremely crucial night just before the referendum, and he was focused on the RBS leaving story, on his 8am TV interview and on his big speech.
Prentice said that he had grabbed Ms E’s backside because he could. Salmond replied that he had not touched her backside. But he should have been more aware of her personal space and that she was not keen to join in the photograph taking.
That finished the notably brief prosecution cross examination of Alex Salmond, which it is fair to say was very much aimed at arousing the emotions rather than attempting to query Salmond’s version of the facts.
Court reporting restrictions prevent me from passing much comment on the above. I would have covered the prosecution case in equal detail had the public not been barred from the court during it. I shall contribute another report after the defence continues today.
With grateful thanks to those who donated or subscribed to make this reporting possible.
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