When Alex Salmond became first minister of Scotland in 2007 many people wished him well. You did not need to have voted for the SNP to appreciate that Salmond’s minority administration was a welcome breath of fresh air. It replaced a tired and muddled Labour-Lib Dem coalition with one that had a pleasing sense of purpose and ambition. Scotland was ready to grow and Salmond seemed the kind of statesman who would not embarrass the nation.
A decade later, Salmond is reduced to working for the Kremlin’s propaganda station “Russia Today”. It has been a depressing fall from grace, one to be pitied as much as anything else. You do not often see an erstwhile statesman chump himself quite so thoroughly as this.
Salmond will henceforth present a weekly “chat show” on Russia Today, produced by a new company he has formed in association with his former Westminster colleague Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh. Meanwhile, despite taking money from a regime presiding over a country in which journalists who ask inconvenient questions have an uncanny habit of ending up dead, Salmond also hopes to become the next chairman of Johnston Press, publishers of The Scotsman, The Yorkshire Post and a couple of hundred local newspapers across Britain. Apparently he sees nothing awkward about this.
But then Salmond, convinced of his own righteous genius, has become a fool and a sad one at that. His former colleagues in the SNP are unimpressed by this latest vainglorious promotion of the Alex Salmond experience.
The former first minister is “a cretin” says one MP. Another nationalist parliamentarian observes, with considerable understatement, that “Those whom the gods would destroy they first make mad”. Plenty of leading nationalists assumed reports that Salmond was going to work for Russia Today must have been a hoax. Because, look, whatever Alex Salmond may be he’s no George Galloway. Except now he is.
“There are lapses in judgement and then there is this,” says an SNP minister. Another of Salmond’s former colleagues suggests he might go back to his Burns and ask, “O wad some power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us”. Multiple nationalist insiders wonder if Salmond is even deliberately going out of his way to make life difficult for Sturgeon and the rest of the nationalist movement. The ego, they say, is out of control.
It is not even a secret, far less an open one, that Nicola Sturgeon sometimes wishes her predecessor would pipe down and remember, just for once, it’s not all about Alex Salmond. She must put up with his interventions because doing so has hitherto been less trouble than disowning him but, even so, there are limits to the indignities the nationalist movement must endure.
But then in some respects Salmond, who invited the Tories to come after him during the election never for a second thinking they might actually defeat him, is no longer really a part of what we might now consider the mainstream SNP. His constant need for attention has become acutely embarrassing. It hardly seems coincidental that Salmond did not attend last month’s SNP conference in Glasgow but, instead, now pops up to speak at conventions organised by the alt-Nat community. The zoomers and the bubble-people are his audience now.
All of which is rather dismaying. There is something pitiful about seeing a politician divest himself of gravitas in this fashion. Salmond was always a divisive figure but, whatever your own politics, he was also one worthy of respect. Now he takes the Kremlin’s gold and, by appearing on Russia Today and giving it his endorsement, finds himself in the same league of dishonour as George Galloway and Nigel Farage. What a trio that constitutes.
His audience doesn’t care, of course. To them it is axiomatic that Russia Today is no different to the BBC. Even if Russia Today is “biased” it’s no more biased than anyone else. So, really, when you think about it there’s no difference between working for Russia Today and working for The Spectator.
Salmond, naturally, encourages this kind of thinking. According to him there are only half a dozen respectable journalists in Scotland and the rest of us are a “waste of space”. Imagine the shame those half-dozen hacks should be feeling today? (I am tolerably confident I am not considered one of them.) Like many enemies of the press, Salmond cannot quite make up his mind. On the one hand, newspapers are a fading irrelevance; on the other if it weren’t for the beastly media he’d have led Scotland to independence in 2014.
Well, the media was right to subject the Yes campaign’s claims to greater scrutiny than those made by a Better Together campaign that was, in the end, essentially offering the status quo. Similarly, it was entirely appropriate for the media to question the Leave campaign’s promises about an unknown future more thoroughly than it asked tough questions of a Remain campaign advocating continuity, not revolution.
Salmond asks that we watch his show before making up our minds but he misses the essential point which is that his programme does not have to be Kremlin propaganda because his mere presence on Russia Today is designed to offer a spurious credibility to other shows on that network.
Shows which, as the record shows, are frequently in breach of Ofcom standards of fairness and impartiality. Shows which take the view that all views are of equal merit, that you have to watch RT to find the stories that other channels are hiding from you. There is no such thing as objective reality; you are being lied to; are you really going to let them get away with that? Think about it!
Sometimes, of course, it’s less subtle than that. there are dozens of examples which could be cited to substantiate this. Indeed, Ofcom has found RT in breach of guidelines on at least 15 separate occasions. In 2014, for instance, the RT network broadcast a programme called "The Truthseeker” introduced by its presenter as an examination of “The genocide in eastern Ukraine and its quote ‘shameful cover up’”. The voiceover summarised the film thus: “Bombing the wheat field to make sure there’s famine. Kiev’s leaders repeat Hitler’s genocidal oath.” On-screen captions noted that “Ukrainians’ homes – ‘Lebensraum in German – are handed to Hitler’s army” and “Eyewitnesses: Kiev army now literally crucify babies in seized towns, force mothers to watch.”
Say what you will about the BBC but you won’t get this sort of stuff from them. But then RT also accused the BBC of 'staging' a chemical weapons attack in Syria.
The Russians, bless them, don’t even bother to hide what they’re doing, confident their audience of western saps will not care to see what is plainly observable. When RT’s new parent organisation, wholly funded by the Kremlin, was created in 2013, Putin’s spokesman said: “The tool of propaganda is an integral part of any state. It is everywhere. and Russia should use it as well. Propaganda in the good sense of the word”.
So, no, RT isn’t your ordinary television project. But then I suppose Alex Salmond isn’t your ordinary former politician either. A sad decline and a disgraceful one too.