On Sunday 7 December 2014, the Mail on Sunday ran a front page splash “Storm as SNP refuses to hand over money to fund royals – Sturgeon’s £2m Cash Grab from the Queen”. Hamish Macdonell, in “an exclusive” opens by claiming that the Queen “is set to lose funding worth millions of pounds a year thanks to a republican snub by Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP Government.” He goes to claim that “the SNP is planning to reap the financial benefits of the new deal – whilst refusing to hand across the money to fund the Monarchy”.
Having a long-standing interest in the Crown Estate and the strange circumstances in which, in 2011, the Sovereign Grant Bill had been rushed through Parliament , I knew this story made no sense for the simple reason that responsibility for the financing of the Royal Family is a reserved matter and that there are no proposals to change this state of affairs.
The story was then regurgitated by Hamish in the Spectator blog with even more extravagant claims such as “Scotland will simply be taking the money that currently goes to pay for the Royal Family and spending it on whatever it likes”, that the refusal to hand the money over was a “snub” designed to appeal to SNP members who “still harbour grievances over the referendum”.
By this point a number of journalists who were interested in following up the story contacted me. I told them that there were no proposals to devolve responsibility for financing the Royal Family and that the entire story appeared to be what I described in my blog as “a dung heap of unadulterated, fabricated crap”.
The plain facts are that the Crown Estate revenues do not finance the Royal Family but merely provide a benchmark against which the Sovereign Grant is calculated (using an initial figure of 15%), that the matter is reserved to Westminster, and that the Smith Commission (which recommended devolution of the Crown Estate) had correctly noted that “responsibility for financing the Sovereign grant will need to reflect this revised settlement for the Crown Estate.”
Mr Macdonell then published another Spectator blog (is he paid for each one?) in which he remarks upon the excitement his column had provoked and argues that the Scottish Government is at fault for providing confusing answers to his questions.
The entire story is based upon a question that Mr Macdonell asked the Scottish Government – will it be sending a cheque south to help pay for the Royal Family? “No”, was the reply for the simple reason that funding for the Royal Family is a reserved matter and is paid out of general taxation – a point which, if Mr Macdonell had read Section 1 of the Sovereign Grant Act would have been immediately obvious. Had he read Section 7, he would also have learnt that the 15% is due for review in April 2016 and every 5 years thereafter. A sensible reading of this suggests an uprating of the 15% to correct the reduced Crown Estate revenues flowing to the Treasury after devolution of the Scottish Crown Estate.
I am very content with a probing, inquiring and critical press. A legitimate question exists over how any adjustment to the Sovereign Grant will be made. But instead of an intelligent exploration of such matters, the question is turned on its head and the Scottish Government is in the dock for refusing to do something that it has no responsibility or obligation for in the first place.
What next? Why is Nicola Sturgeon grabbing cash from the pensioners of Birmingham or refusing to pay for the dock redevelopments in Belfast?
This story is a wilful misrepresentation of the facts. A front page splash is concocted days before the First Minister is due to meet the Queen. It is a thinly-disguised smear on Nicola Sturgeon as a republican extremist who grabs £2 million of cash and snubs Her Majesty.
When challenged on the story, Mr Macdonell is afforded another Spectator column in which he pretends that the fuss is all due to a lack of clarity from the Scottish Government and I am portrayed as an “SNP sympathiser” (I am a member of the Scottish Green Party).
To many people, this is all rather unremarkable. The print media is biased and the Daily Mail in particular has form. But Scottish journalists do not need to agree to undertake whatever agenda the Daily Mail is pursuing here. They could, instead, confine their legitimate opinions to an opinion column. But by their complicity in fabricated news stories, they do themselves no credit.
Alan Cochrane reveals in his diary of the referendum campaign that, when asked by Alistair Darling to spike an unhelpful column, he happily did so. “He’s in charge after all. It’s not really good journalism but what the hell does journalism matter?”, he writes.
What the hell indeed.