Report by David Mizrachi
Craig Murray’s “virtual” trial for contempt of court began today at the Court of Appeals in Edinburgh. It was presided over by 3 judges: Lady Dorrian, Lord Turnbull and Lord Menzies. Both sides had submitted all information and sworn affidavits to the court before today’s proceedings, and though two days had been put aside for the proceedings, it was all over at noon of day one, after only 90 minutes when Lady Dorrian – the only judge who spoke – said the court will deliver its verdict in writing “in due course”. There was no opportunity for either side to present their evidence, and therefore to cross-examine the other side.
The case was heard by judges without a jury as it was not deemed to be a criminal case. Nevertheless, the maximum penalty is steep: 2 years in jail and an unlimited fine.
(From this layman’s perspective it’s interesting to compare impressions from today to the Julian Assange extradition case management hearings and trial that I have experience of. First, though as an ordinary member of the public I only had audio access, the connection here was immediate and the sound was clear, whereas for the Assange hearings there was typically no audio access, and when there was it was essentially unusable. At this hearing accredited journalists and NGOs were granted cloud video access and I’m not aware of any complaints, whereas for Assange they faced endless hindrances: no access, revoked access, poor access, poor sight lines, poor audio, broken connections. Maybe as a result, this trial was well attended; reportedly some 330 press on the Webex video, and hundreds more members of the public on audio who did not face barriers of cost, inconvenience and time – not to mention threats of Covid and arrest like those members of the public who attempt to attend Assange hearings. The other big difference was the court atmosphere: today it seemed “normal”, whereas at Assange hearings the judge is openly hostile to the defence and the defendant is preposterously brought in handcuffed and confined to a Perspex box or viewed through a TV screen even if in the same building as if he’s Eichmann, or Hannibal Lecter).
Circumstances around the Alex Salmond trial held between 9 and 20 March 2020 are important background because Murray (amongst others) has alleged a conspiracy by senior members of the Scottish government and the SNP to frame and “destroy Alex Salmond”. Their motivation for this isn’t clear (to me), though it may relate to differences over the approach to Scottish independence.
The Crown lost the Salmond case: Salmond was acquitted on all counts, which concerned sex allegations. That had followed an earlier victory for Salmond when the Scottish government admitted bias in an internal investigation into the claims against him.
Murray’s writing has been critical of the motivation and conduct of the prosecution rather than of the defendant. He reported that it was pointed out to him how unusual – maybe unique – in Scottish and possibly UK legal history it is to be charged with contempt of court for criticising the prosecution. Contempt of court laws are thought of as protecting a jury of lay people from influence by public condemnation of a defendant, and we assume that judges and prosecution lawyers can deal with public comment.
The publications identified in the indictment against Murray are “The Alex Salmond Fit-Up” (August 23, 2019), the satirical “Yes Minister Fan Fiction” (January 18, 2020), “The Alex Salmond Trial and Censorship” (March 5, 2020), 6 articles published during the trial, tweets between March 29 and April 2, 2020, and finally 2 more articles published soon after the trial.
Murray alleged in his blog that a plot to frame Salmond “is revealed very substantially in texts” between Sue Ruddick, the SNP’s COO, and Peter Murrell, the SNP’s CEO and husband of Nicola Sturgeon. A key question concerns the date of a meeting that Nicola Sturgeon had with Salmond, and when she first knew of the allegations against him. Her account of this differs from that of Geoff Aberdein (Salmond’s former Chief of Staff). The difference is important in ascertaining whether and when she could have known of the alleged plot.
An application by Murray for the disclosure of the above texts, which are held in the Crown Office and by the Lord Advocate, was refused by the Edinburgh High Court on January 19th 2021. Murray reported that “These are some of the same documents the Lord Advocate has refused to give the Holyrood Inquiry and which Alex Salmond has said prevent him appearing before the Inquiry until the Lord Advocate agrees he can reference them in his evidence”, and also that “The High Court notably refrained from endorsing the Lord Advocate’s argument that they are “private messages” and that Murrell and Ruddick are protected from their disclosure under Article 8”.
Murray faces charges on 3 strands:
- Publication of material likely to influence the jury
- Jigsaw Identification of Protected Identities
- Reporting the Exclusion of a Juror.
Today the court dealt with preliminary matters, and then legal arguments. The key topics were:
- Lady Dorrian questioned why The Crown had proceeded with the Salmond trial if it thought that the trial had been compromised by Murray’s blog posts
- Jigsaw identification is when incomplete information is enough to identify a person. A discussion on the nature of jigsaw identification (of the complainants in the Salmond trial), on where the line should be drawn between hard-to-avoid identification by people close to the complainant and unfair identification by the general public, and on how it can be established given that, for example, internet search results vary in time and from search engine to search engine
- Is a blogger responsible for reader comments?
- Information that was also reported earlier and elsewhere is not being prosecuted.
In his publications and in his affidavit to the court Murray pointed to examples of public and press comment that vilified Salmond. He argued that this vilification clearly could have influenced the jury, and that the fact that it has not attracted prosecution indicates a biased motivation for his prosecution. This is interesting if we bear in mind that the Lord Advocate is both a member of the government of Scotland and its chief prosecutor.
Similarly, regarding jigsaw identification Murray pointed to examples such as publications by Dani Garavelli that revealed identifying information that he did not – except, possibly, by reporting that Garavelli had! This was backed up by a Panelbase poll that he commissioned which indicated that members of the public who think they know who at least one of the accusers is, did not get that view from Murray.
We have no indication of when the verdict will be announced.
My Sworn Evidence on the Sturgeon Affair https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2021/01/my-sworn-evidence-on-the-sturgeon-affair/
Taylor Hudak for AcTVism Munich