The former British diplomat will be free for four weeks to apply for appeal to U.K. Supreme Court of his eight month sentence for contempt of court in the trial of former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond.
By Joe Lauria
Special to Consortium News
The Scottish High Court on Tuesday denied an application for appeal by former British diplomat and blogger Craig Murray on his eight-month sentence for contempt of court, but it was ruled he may remain free for four weeks to lodge an application for appeal with the U.K. Supreme Court in London.
Murray’s attorney argued on Monday that his conviction violated Articles 6 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and that his sentence was “disproportionate.” Murray was convicted of contempt for so-called “jigsaw identification” in his writings of complainants in the sexual abuse case against former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond, who was acquitted of all charges.
But Lord Justice Clerk Lady Dorrian ruled against Murray’s Scottish appeal on the grounds that, “Some complainers were the subject of repeated articles [written by Murray], thus constituting aggravations of the original breach. The level of culpability – high – was also taken into account, as were the personal circumstances of the applicant. The sanctions determination was in itself an exercise in proportionality.”
Dorrian wrote: “In its determination, the court considered … that the actions of the applicant were such as struck at the heart of the fair administration of justice.”
The judged rejected as irrelevant Murray’s “genuinely held belief that the prosecution of the former first minister was unwarranted.”
“It is the repeated publication of material likely to lead to identification of complainers in the face of a clear order of the court prohibiting that which drew” Murray’s conviction, she wrote. “Having reached the conclusion that there are no arguable points of law arising, the court will refuse the application” for appeal in the Scottish High Court. But she then allowed Murray to remain free to pursue the U.K. Supreme Court appeal.
“We understand that it is the applicant’s intention to seek to apply for leave directly to the UKSC. In the circumstances we will suspend the warrant for a further four weeks,” Dorrian wrote.
In her ruling, Dorrian also pointed out what she calls a difference in “codes of practice and ethics” of mainstream journalism “in a way in which those writing as the applicant does are not.” Murray has argued that reporting in mainstream newspapers either equalled or exceeded jigsaw identification of the alleged victims in the Alex Salmond case, whose names Dorrian had ordered sealed.
Writing on Murray’s blog before Dorrian’s decision, Kirsten MacDonald, who edited a collection of Murray’s writings, said:
“Murray’s legal team will have to apply direct to the UK Supreme Court to grant him an appeal, but his eight month sentence will likely be served before the Supreme Court even looks at whether to consider it.
For comparison, the English High Court has not yet decided whether to hear the United States appeal against the decision to refuse extradition of Julian Assange, even though Assange remains in Belmarsh prison while they decide whether to take their case. Murray languishing in Saughton or Barlinnie is unlikely to be a consideration for the Supreme Court.
There is no precedent for an appeal against conviction for contempt of court in Scotland to be heard by the UK Supreme Court; we are in uncharted waters.”
Murray was convicted of contempt of court May 11 for allegedly revealing the identity of four anonymous accusers indirectly; of writing about the exclusion of two jurors in violation of a court order and of allegedly prejudicing the case in Salmond’s favor. There was no pronouncement of guilt on the latter two charges. Salmond was acquitted at trial of 13 sex charges in March 2020.
Murray was found to have contravened an order by the Crown prosecutors to stop writing about the matter. Representatives of the Crown say Murray was warned of this in January 2020 and in August 2020.
Murray was charged in April 2020 with writing two articles on his website that led to the alleged prejudice in the Salmond case and to possible “jig-saw” identification, despite a court order of anonymity, of the women who alleged sexual assault against Salmond. The accusers’ identities were to remain anonymous by order of Dorrian, who presided over both Salmond’s and Murray’s trials.
The 1981 Contempt of Court Act applies to “a publication which creates a substantial risk that the course of justice in the proceedings in question will be seriously impeded or prejudiced.” In the sentencing hearing, which Consortium News had direct access to online, Dorrian called Murray’s contempt “grave” and on a “substantial” scale.
“Action in clear violation of the court even in a coded way needs to be treated as contempt in a grave way,” she said.
“He knew of jigsaw identification and relished in revealing it, thinking it was in the public interest,” she said. “In this he failed.”
Murray testified in his trial that he had evidence of a scheme against Salmond that involved Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s chief of staff.
Murray’s sworn written testimony outlined the alleged plot to silence himself and to apparently prevent Salmond from reentering politics.
Murray’s affidavits, if true, exposed deep corruption and collusion between the SNP, Crown prosecutors, Police Scotland and parts of the mainstream media.
Citing unnamed, insider sources that he says were in a position to know, Murray testified under oath that the sex crimes allegations against Salmond were an orchestrated attempt to destroy Salmond’s political career by rivals inside the Scottish National Party.
Murray testified that after reading of the allegations against Salmond in August 2018 he “made no attempt to discover the identity of the civil servant involved, but I did make strenuous efforts to discover who had leaked the story to the media.” After conferring with his contacts he “discovered with a high degree of certainty that the leaker was Liz Lloyd, Chief of Staff to Nicola Sturgeon.”
Murray testified that he called in an article for the sacking of two civil servants found in Salmond’s judicial review to have abused the process and that “if Nicola Sturgeon failed to act against them, it might indicate that she was herself involved in the campaign of false allegation against Alex Salmond.” Sturgeon’s spokeswoman accused Salmond of “spinning false conspiracy theories” to deflect attention from the accusations, even after he was acquitted.
After this article appeared Salmond asked to meet Murray at the George Hotel in Edinburgh. “Here, for the first time, he told me that Nicola Sturgeon had been behind the process designed to generate false accusations against him,” Murray testified. He said that Salmon won his judicial review case because, “It was on the day that witnesses from Nicola Sturgeon’s private office were due to give evidence as to her own knowledge and involvement, that the Scottish Government suddenly conceded the case rather than have this evidence heard.”
Murray went on:
“Mr Salmond further told me that there was a massive police operation underway to try to get accusers to come forward against him. This was going to ludicrous lengths. He showed me an email from one woman to him, in which she stated that she had been called in and interviewed by the police because many years ago Alex Salmond had been said by another person to have been seen kissing her on the cheeks in a theatre foyer. The woman stated she had told them it was a perfectly normal greeting. She wished to warn Alex of the police fishing expedition against him. He understood that over 400 people had been interviewed by the police.”
Murray testified that he asked Salmond what the motive against him could be. “Alex replied that he did not know; perhaps it lay in King Lear. He said that he had genuinely intended to quit politics and had lined up a position as Chairman of Johnstone Press, which had fallen because of these allegations. But he had retired from the party leadership before, and then come back, and perhaps Nicola had concluded he needed a stake through the heart,” Murray said.
Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) came up one seat short of a majority in last week’s Scottish elections, but with eight Green Party seats will have a majority to call for a second independence referendum. She remains as first minister. Salmond’s Alba Party failed to win any seats.
In his testimony, Murray said that a source who had been present at a meeting with Sturgeon and some of her ministers told him that multiple charges had been brought against Salmond so that if just one conviction could be won Salmond would be destroyed as a sexual predator.
Armed with this information, Murray testified that he was faced with a dilemma. He wrote:
“To expose that it was Nicola Sturgeon who masterminded the conspiracy against him would be a real blow to the Independence movement. But to watch a plot to imprison an innocent man potentially for the rest of his life unfold before my eyes was also horrifying. Particularly as the most cynical part of the plot, to use the court anonymity granted to accusers of sexual abuse, to disguise who was actually behind the allegations, appeared to be working.”
“The Crown can release salacious detail about attempted rape while lying naked on top of somebody in bed, and the media can echo this to the heavens. But from that moment, nobody can publish anything to contradict the Crown without being in contempt of court. It seemed to me that, in these circumstances, the Crown ought to have been a great deal more restrained in the amount of salacious detail it was making available. Certainly, there was nothing in what was happening which would contradict the information I had been given of the Crown Office being party to a political plot to destroy Salmond.”
“In or around March 2019, and from time to time over several months thereafter, I became aware of information tending to show that senior members of the SNP had sought improperly to involve themselves in the Salmond case. This included meeting with women to urge them to make or persevere with complaints to the police, coordination of complainers and their stories, liaison with the police over charges and attempts to persuade individuals other than the complainers to come forward as witnesses to allegations, which attempts were unsuccessful.”
The Crown alleged in Murray’s one-day trial on Jan. 27, conducted entirely online and observed by Consortium News, that identifying characteristics Murray provided in his articles could be pieced together to reveal the identity of four of Salmond’s nine accusers, all of whom on March 10, 2020 were ordered to remain anonymous.
The prosecutor, Alex Prentice QC, advocate depute for the Crown, told the court Murray’s writings, as well as reader comments on his site, allegedly led to a “risk of prejudice” in the Salmond case, even though he admitted prosecutors never warned the court until after the Salmond trial was over. Murray’s articles in question were published in August 2019 (“The Alex Salmond Fit-Up”) and in January 2020 (“Yes Minister Fan Fiction.”)
Lady Dorrian, who is leading the tribunal in Murray’s case, asked Prentice why the court was not informed before Slamond’s trial of the possible prejudice by Murray’s writings. “If the Crown was of the view that these articles pose a substantial risk to the proceedings it seems strange that the Crown did not take any action at that time, or even bring it to court?” Dorrian asked.
“I accept that,” Prentice replied. “There were a number of considerations, but the Lady is right and I recognize that is a factor the court can take into account in assessing this.”
Dorrian replied: “I understand that material written after the order may attract a certain shading in conjunction with an earlier article. My difficulty is that those earlier arguments could breach an order that wasn’t issued until March 10.”
“At the time it didn’t apply, but [the articles] are still available so they can be taken into account,” Prentice argued.
Lady Dorrian also challenged that putting identifying characteristics of an unnamed accuser in a search engine would bring up different results over time. Prentice maintained that Murray’s writings must be seen together, not in isolation, acting as “magnet” to draw together “needles in a haystack” to identify the anonymous accusers.
Murray’s counsel, John Scott argued before the tribunal that Murray’s response to the Crown’s letter in March was to seek press accreditation to cover the Salmond case, which he was denied. Instead Murray relied on the reporting of other journalists to write analyses of the trial. Murray had redacted the names of the anonymous accusers, Scott argued.
On the jig-saw matter, Scott said “it is clear that he was aware of the names of the complainers and his sworn evidence is he was aware of them before the court order, but that it would not be responsible journalism to name them. …If he had wanted to do what the Crown says he did he could have done so.”
On the issue of prejudicing the trial, Scott said that if the Crown was “worried about the case they ought to have brought this to the attention of the court. … It is too late after trial. … They can’t wait to see how it developed and after acquittal then say there was prejudice.”
On the matter of the juror, Scott said Murray’s article only speculated on why the jurors were excluded and did not report the actual reasons. The Crown called Murray’s speculation “bizarre and unfounded,” while at the same time saying it violated the prohibition on mentioning the actual “issues raised by the Advocate Depute” in support of removing the the jurors.
Murray’s attorney told the court that mainstream media had reported details of the accusers. The BBC reported, for instance, in April: “The women who made the allegations against Mr Salmond included an SNP politician, a party worker and several current and former Scottish government civil servants and officials.” In his affidavit, Murray testified:
“If they genuinely thought my article might influence a jury, given they were well aware of the article and wrote to me about it, the Crown Office had an obvious public duty to act before a trial to prevent that evil. I would have happily turned up in court and argued my case. To wait until long after the trial, after it is far too late to avert the evil they purport to be concerned about, and then make that allegation against me, is plainly pointless and vindictive and, again, sinister.”
Murray may have been a Crown target for the contempt conviction because he was among few writers defending Salmond and was vindicated by Salmond’s acquittal. Murray’s writings and his affidavits also revealed the troubling evidence of a conspiracy against Salmond, possibly including Scotland’s top political leader.
Murray has been a thorn in the Establishment’s side since he blew the whistle on Britain’s acquiescence of torture in Uzbekistan in 2002. He later testified about it to a parliamentary committee.
Since then, Murray has been a fierce advocate for his friend Julian Assange, the imprisoned WikiLeaks publisher, whom the United States is trying to extradite from Britain. Murray’s accounts of Assange’s extradition hearing appeared on Consortium News. Murray is also a strong supporter of Scottish independence, which the British establishment vehemently opposes.
Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former UN correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and numerous other newspapers. He was an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times of London and began his professional career as a stringer for The New York Times. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @unjoe