Against the First Minister and the Crown, he rebelled. They cut him down! Now his wife Nadira must raise their two young sons with dignity. That is how many people in Scotland, and elsewhere in the world, are viewing the eight month prison sentence passed down on rebel blogger Craig Murray for Contempt of Court (even if they don’t sing it to the strains of The Fields of Athenry). Globally respected liberal opinion-formers have expressed their solidarity with the former British ambassador-turned-whistleblower. Professor Noam Chomsky commented:
Craig Murray has compiled a remarkable record of courage and integrity in exposing crimes of state and working to bring them to an end. He fully merits our deep respect and support for his achievements.
The prominent scribe and documentary filmmaker John Pilger said:
In these dark times, Craig Murray’s truth-telling is a beacon. He is owed our debt of gratitude, not the travesty of a prison sentence which, like the prosecution of Julian Assange, is a universal warning.
Along with many others, they clearly believe Mr Murray has been muzzled for political crimes. He himself has said he could become a political prisoner. No wonder the Lord Justice Clerk and her two fellow High Court judges have agonised for so long over this case. And their agonising isn’t over: after a challenge by his advocate Roddy Dunlop QC, Mr Murray was given three weeks of continued liberty to appeal his sentence.
In her sentencing statement Lady Dorrian said the former diplomat’s online articles about the Alex Salmond trial had “struck at the heart of the fair administration of justice”. But there are an unprecedented number of people who believe fairness doesn’t exist in the administration of criminal justice in Scotland; that Mr Murray is the victim of selective prosecution; and that what we therefore now have in this country is the very opposite of impartial justice. Why were a number of legacy media hacks not also in the dock for aiding the “jigsaw identification” of some of Mr Salmond’s female accusers? That is the question being asked by many members of the Scottish public – and it deserves a public response.
If they log on to some the most followed Scottish political websites, our mightiest court judges might be more than a wee bit startled. Some of them – and the justice system of which they are primary upholders – are being roundly savaged around the clock. Castigated along with the now widely loathed Lord Advocate as agents of the Crown, our judges are no longer being just murmured, their reputations are being mutilated. Personally, I don’t believe they deserve that, for the judiciary can only adjudicate on the cases brought before them. This shouldn’t just be about murmuring a few judges or the muzzling of one journalist/activist – who, quite frankly, could have done with attending a few of the media law lectures I delivered at journalism schools, north and south of the Border. This is about Scotland’s criminal justice system becoming a global scandal. And that is down to the Crown!
Something has to be done – and done rapidly – to restore confidence in the Scottish prosecution system. Something that can only be done by the Scottish Parliament when it reconvenes – if our hitherto spineless parliamentarians can finally summon the courage to rein in the current First Minister. I’ll explain why they need to.
Firstly, that phrase ‘murmuring the judges’ probably needs a bit of explanation, even for some Scots lawyers. That was the ancient term for what the English would later call ‘scandalising the court’. Pouring scorn or ridicule upon the judiciary in ways likely to bring the administration of justice into disrepute was never a crime committed with any frequency down through the ages of deference. It was formally abolished after a review in 2013 in England and Wales. But my understanding is that murmuring judges remains an offence in Scotland, Northern Ireland and some Commonwealth jurisdictions – something about which many mouthy Scots seem blissfully ignorant. Indeed, were this ancient statute to be invoked in response to social media coverage of the Craig Murray case, our courts might be 20 times more clogged than they already are due to Covid!
Much of this online savagery is down to the unprecedentedly febrile political atmosphere created by what was inevitably dubbed Salmondgate. Perhaps because of his general state of mind – see my earlier blog headlined The Maladjusted Craig Murray – this nationalist blogger felt he had to do something to save Mr Salmond from a dark plot to destroy him in any way deemed necessary. Messrs Murray and Salmond seem to have formed something of a mutual admiration club long before the current FM and former FM drew their claymores on each other. But it is striking how Mr Salmond has never protested the innocence of Mr Murray.
Perhaps that’s because the former FM still has some unfinished legal business of his own to settle (or simply because he didn’t need any distraction when he was about to launch his new breakaway Alba party). Possibly. But a far more influential factor, I suspect, is that Mr Salmond does not believe in dragging Scotland’s legal and governmental system into grave disrepute. Remember what he told the Holyrood inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of the sexual harassment allegations against him:
Some say the failures of those institutions and the blurring of the boundaries between party, government and prosecution service mean that Scotland is in danger of becoming a failed state. I disagree. The Scottish civil service hasn’t failed; its leadership has failed. The Crown Office hasn’t failed; its leadership has failed. Scotland hasn’t failed; its leadership has failed.
And then came the two most crucial sentences he uttered in the carefully crafted statement he read out that day:
The Scottish courts emerge from this with their reputation enhanced. Can those leading the Crown Office say the same?
This is what is striking at the heart of faith and trust in the administration of justice in Scotland right now, the widespread suspicion that prosecutions are in some cases partial and political. Gordon Dangerfield, a Solicitor Advocate who does not represent Murray, commented:
The way in which Craig Murray has been singled out by the prosecuting authorities in this case is a national scandal which should concern anyone who cares about the rule of law in Scotland.
Scotland’s criminal justice system will continue to be scandalised so long as the person heading up COPFS (the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service) is also the chief legal adviser to the Scottish Government and a member of Nicola Sturgeon’s Cabinet. James Wolffe QC possesses the most extraordinary set of powers granted to anyone in a supposedly free society. Or rather Nicola Sturgeon does. For, as the First Minister, she conferred all these powers upon him.
No member of the aforementioned Holyrood committee was willing (or able) to tackle the FM properly about this throughout the eight hours she gave evidence to it. But several members of that committee did suggest that Scotland’s top law officer could face conflicts of interest unless and until the unprecedented powers he possesses are split. Mr Wolffe disagreed, naturally, and said he wanted to continue in his dual role. Ms Sturgeon has allowed him to carry on and will, doubtless, allow him to carry on until she sees some personal reason for him not to keep carrying on.
The Scottish Parliament must give her that reason as soon as it reconvenes. Newly elected and re-elected MSPs need to tell Nicola Sturgeon that Scotland’s ancient and distinctive legal system – one of the great pillars of our post-Union nationhood – is in serious danger of being scandalised around the globe. She has to address that appalling state of affairs by loosening the reins of power she, to an unprecedented extent, wields over it.
I know she wasn’t a particularly distinguished lawyer but Nicola should not need it explained to her that separation of powers between politicians, police and prosecutors is vital in any jurisdiction worthy of any respect anywhere in the world. She should have learnt that in one of her first public law lectures at Glasgow University. In fact, she didn’t need to go to Gilmorehill to learn that. Any of her constituents in Govanhill could tell her justice needs to be not only done but seen to be done. That is clearly not the case today in Sturgeon’s Scotland.
If you haven’t already done so, you may care to read an earlier article I posted a few days ago about why Craig Murray is the way he is. I wasn’t sure how Craig would take it, but he did thank me for it via email.