Reply To: Jim Sillars’ formal complaint re Nicola Sturgeon’s smears about Alex Salmond

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Sturgeon’s defence seems to be that she was helpless to avoid smearing Alex Salmond and she couldn’t help undermining the verdict of the jury in the Salmond trial, because it was the journalists wot started it. “It wisnae me!” Sillars wasn’t impressed. He responded today:

It would have been wiser for you to take more time to consider the substance of my letter.

May I request that you transfer the question of whether or not you breached the Ministerial Code to Mr. Hamilton or some other suitable independent person.  I think, given the gravity of the breaches I have detailed, it would not be construed as proper for you to be judge and jury.

I concur with your view of the Covid briefings as of great advantage to the public. You have been scrupulous in keeping them to that agenda, which is your Government’s agenda. When you chose to depart from that practice and respond to a non-Covid related question from James Matthew, to launch a political attack on Alex Salmond, you breached the Code as I set out in my original letter.

Of course, I accept, as you say, that you did not know that Mr. Matthew would ask you a non-Covid related question; but you had the choice to inform him that it was not an appropriate one in the context of a public health briefing, or to take the bait.  The choice you made was yours, and yours alone.

You are an experienced Minister, with many years of dealing with questions from journalists. You and others in your position never know what they might ask, just as you do not know the supplementary questions that will come from MSPs at FMQs.

Ministers have a variety of ways that enable them to avoid answering questions that are inappropriate, or asked in a context not germane to the agenda for which the meeting was called. It is not a criticism to say that you employ that approach each week at FMQs, and could have done so in reply to the first non-Covid related question from the Sky journalist. Again, I make the point that you chose not to do so.

Your excuse, that if you “had refused to answer these questions I would have been criticised for avoiding scrutiny,” is unconvincing. Who would have criticised you? Not the public looking in on the briefing, for whom public health information is their only reason for watching.

I venture to suggest that a sharp reminder to Mr. Matthew of the purpose of the briefing would not have been criticised by the public, but approved.  It is true that journalists may have criticised you, but that goes with job and should not be something of such importance to you, that you chose to breach the Code in order to avoid their anticipated critical views.  Your reply gives me no reason to withdraw that part of my complaint.

The statement issued by the  Faculty of Advocates, expressing their concern about  the reputation of the Scottish legal system, included “and perhaps most importantly, the vital place of the verdict of impartial juries in criminal  proceedings.”

That they should feel it necessary to issue that statement on the day following your departure from the purpose of the  public health briefing, speaks volumes.  I see no reason to withdraw my complaint that in choosing to speak as you did in relation to the criminal trial, you breached the Code.
I now refer to the final paragraph of your letter where it says: “Of course the most appropriate place for me to be questioned about these matters is in front of the Parliamentary  Committee.” I agree. But in choosing first to use the forum of a briefing on Covid public health matters, you breached the Code.

I shall be grateful to have your assurance that you will refer my complaint to either Mr. Hamilton or some other person with the authority to investigate it.