Kirsty Wark's oddly discombobulating BBC documentary, The Trial of Alex Salmond,
has been skilfully gralloched by several pundits, including Gerry Hassan of this parish. So what more is there to say? Quite a lot, as it happens, for this was no one-off. Indeed, it's easy to get the impression that Ms Wark's general curriculum vitae could probably be described as the story that keeps on giving, such is the Byzantine complexity of her deep engrossment with the BBC and the seemingly liberal helping of Teflon which has long insulated her from criticism and firmly secured her place inside Auntie's hen-coop – though largely as an external contractor, rather than an employee, I was assured by an insider friend.
Talking of hen-coops, her uncharacteristically amateur attack on our (admittedly Marmite) former First Minister eerily reminded me of a long-ago documentary about an 18th-century corner cupboard which had been supposedly discovered abandoned in a Welsh farm outhouse with hens brooding in it. This could, from memory, have been a BBC production, possibly even from the stable of the inspirational Roly Keating, a man so fundamentally decent that he handed back his £376,000 severance pay when he left the BBC in 2012 to become Chief Executive of the British Library. Mind you, if he hadn't, the National Audit Office might well have had something to say about it.
Roly's excellent series One Foot in the Past
, which featured Ms Wark as presenter (and in which this writer had a brief and modest role) attracted a healthy viewership and even held its own against Wimbledon, probably because it had a format not dissimilar to Love Island
, except that we were invited to drool over half-ruined historic buildings, rather than scantily clad Z-listers.
The idea behind the corner cupboard story was that it was, a bit like The Trial of Alex Salmond
, clearly meant to end on a dramatic high note. First unearthed by a jack-the-lad 'runner' this (probably planted) hoary object was sold on to a Lovejoy-type antique dealer, who flogged it to a rather more grand dealer, and so on up the food chain until it ended up being exported to Texas (I vaguely recall) where some J R Ewing-ish big spender was presumably meant to make a humongous bid for it at auction. Having once actually attended an auction with Larry Hagman (true story, but I won't bore you with it) I wasn't convinced they were onto a sure-fire thing with this, and guess what – it barely raised a bid. For bean-counting telly execs, with a camera crew no doubt notching up dizzying expenses in the Lone Star state, this could only have been an 'Oh shit!' moment. Not surprisingly, the dismal cupboard saga seems to have vanished from the archives.
Likewise, Ms Wark's documentary was obviously meant to have, as its drum-roll denouement, a closing shot of a G4S Black Maria trundling out of the High Court's big back door with the author of The Dream Shall Never Die
heading off for the gallows, politically speaking, or at the very least a long holiday in Saughton courtesy of Her Majesty. An orange jump suit and some clanking Guantanamo Bay chains would have been good too, one suspects, and maybe even a tattie bag on the heid, to make her picture complete – except that it all fizzled out with nothing happening as the accused was cleared on all charges and left with that trademark broad grin all over the coupon in yet another TV executive's 'Oh shit!' moment. In the annals of the great criminal trials of Scotland, this one wasn't even on a par with shoving yer granny aff the bus.
The words 'egg' and 'face' spring to mind, not that the BBC will ever admit to being anything less than perfect even when sending a coach and horses crashing through producer guidelines, as was manifestly the case here. Ms Wark, after all, has form, to the extent that her on-screen relationship with Mr Salmond could be described as a smouldering Sardinian vendetta, rather than the occasional exchange of banter with the odd feisty question thrown in.
The sad thing about this is that Kirsty Wark is normally a consummate professional, and indeed became something of a heroine of the airwaves when she was unexpectedly called upon to interview Margaret Thatcher 30 years ago. She so infuriated said interviewee that Downing Street attempted to have her career brought to an end, which naturally boosted her prospects. Her steely inquisitorial style is generally forensic and searching, but for the most part it complies with the normal rules of engagement, though you sometimes get a feeling that the chemistry could be better, as in her oddly brittle interview with Madonna in 2008.
Confronted with Alex Salmond, however, it's almost as though she experiences a
meltdown – well, that was certainly how it looked with the notorious 2007 Newsnight
harangue in which she completely lost her cool, concluding her rammy by cutting him off mid-sentence. Had she meted such treatment out to a UK cabinet minister her jotters, one surmises, would most definitely have been in the internal mail. In the recent eccentric documentary, which the BBC unwisely commissioned from its presenter's own company, and which a few wags soon retitled The Trial of Kirsty Wark
, the sense that the plot wasn't holding together was palpable throughout as she skulked outside the courts in the manner of a spurned Louis Theroux vainly shouting 'Mr Salmond. Kirsty Wark, BBC'. No response, naturally.
There was a take in the French restaurant opposite the court which I'm sorry to report called to mind the opening blasted heath scene in Macbeth
as Ms Wark sat by a window (presumably hoping to catch sight of the beleaguered Thane of Buchan looking tormented) in the company of BBC political correspondent Sarah Smith – daughter of one-time Labour leader the late John Smith – and journalist Dani Garivelli, concocter of a BBC Radio 4 programme, Uncivil War
, the theme of which was the bitter rivalry between Nicola and Alex, which of course is utterly destroying the SNP, apparently. So fair and foul a line-up would be hard to beat, as the bard very nearly said.
The underlying hypothesis of Ms Wark's dissertation was that the Salmond trial was some sort of referendum on the #MeToo movement, which was possibly a bit rich, given the BBC's wanton blindness at the time of the Jimmy Savile scandal. It certainly didn't impress journalist and blogger Lesley Riddoch, a stalwart feminist who also happens to support Scottish independence.
It goes without saying, of course, that the not so subtle reference to Harvey Weinstein's criminal activities was clearly not meant to burnish the image of a Scottish ex-politician who may be guilty of many things – whatever possessed him to sign up to Russia Today, for example, and why did he and his ministers fix things for Donald Trump in Aberdeenshire? – but on the matter in point has been exonerated by due process of law.
This was, in other words, a bit of a bad hair day for a programme maker with a grudge. A useful default position, once upon a time, might have been that the judiciary is an evil patriarchy and Mr Salmond, as one of the lads, was being given an easy ride while voiceless women, yet again, were sidelined. But the days of Jardine v Jardine are long behind us, and I doubt if there are any QCs left who worry much about inadvertently leaving copies of Lady Chatterley's Lover
around for their wives and servants to stumble upon.
The judicial realm, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is not what it was. According to UCAS statistics by 2018, the number of women studying law at UK universities outnumbered men by more than two to one. By 2019, the majority of practising solicitors in the UK were women, and the majority of them, unlike Ms Wark, had been educated in state schools.
To cap it all, the presiding judge in the great Salmond reckoning, who also happens to sit on the Supreme Court as Lord Justice Clerk and ranks as the second most senior judge in Scotland the cultured, no-nonsense Lady Leeona Dorrian, whose mastery of legal text is dazzling. Her line manager, Lord Carloway, may be a man, but he's certainly no fogeyish old Rumpole, as those who have witnessed his strumming of a mean guitar in the faculty rock group The Reclaimers will be only too happy to testify under oath, no doubt – I Shot the Sheriff
is presumably not part of the repertoire.
The reason that the trial didn't manage to deliver a suitably scripted ending for Ms Wark’s ghoulish Salmondophobic offering was fairly humdrum. The evidence presented was just too flimsy, the inconsistencies just too obvious. This was a case, after all, which required the highest level of proof, since a man's liberty was on the line, and if that renowned doyen of prosecutors, Alex Prentice QC, couldn't score a hit, then nobody could.
Perhaps the most outrageous aspect of this whole sorry tale – which set out to be a gritty and Chandlerseque tartan noire thriller but somehow ended up as a Mr Bean
misfire – was that it was the BBC's second offence in this area. The first offence, which also had an anti-Salmond subtext, dates back 15 years, and concerns The Gathering Place
, which cost the licence fee payer the best part of £1million, and took as its subject the disastrously over-budget Scottish Parliament building, the architect of which Ms Wark herself had helped to choose. But that's a story for another time.