Defend Freedom of Expression – Support Mark Hirst

Mark Hirst photo from his website.

On Tuesday afternoon an incident occurred which concerns me greatly and should concern everyone else in Scotland who believes in the fundamental right of freedom of expression. A good man was criminally charged under the UK Communications Act 2003. That man is a lifelong advocate of an independent Scotland and a tireless campaigner against poverty, social injustice and discrimination in all its ugly forms. His name is Mark Hirst and his ‘crime’ is to express reasonably, articulately and intelligently the anger and justified frustration that many hundreds of thousands across Scotland feel at the continued besmirching of former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond despite his not guilty verdict in Scotland’s High Court in Edinburgh on March 23rd.

Alex Salmond faced serious charges of sexual assault and attempted rape and if found guilty he would rightly have been imprisoned for many years. His defence was that he was a victim of a conspiracy concocted by political and personal opponents to destroy him as a man and a political figure. He protested his innocence from day one and was confident the case against him was based on falsehoods and lies.

Alex Salmond outside court from Alamy Live News.

The Majority Women Jury Did Not Believe the Anonymous Women Accusers

The fifteen strong jury during the eleven-day trial consisted of nine women and six men. They listened to various allegations of sexual assault and attempted rape from a group of nine women who had their anonymity guaranteed. The press and media were under strict orders not to reveal the identities of Alex Salmond’s accusers, but their accusations were widely reported. His character was traduced, his actions condemned, and the lurid details were published and broadcast daily.

Prior to the verdict on March 23rd a male and female juror had been dismissed on health grounds leaving an 8-5 female majority jury to deliver the verdicts of not guilty on 12 of the 13 charges and not proven on another (a fourteenth charge had earlier been dropped completely by the prosecution). Despite the biased and deeply damaging reporting Alex Salmond was found innocent of the charges.

A female judge presided over the trial of Alex Salmond. Most of Alex Salmond’s defence witnesses were female. And most of the jury presented with the evidence against him were female. Yet despite the not guilty verdict much of the media and the group of female accusers collectively have continued to cast aspersions against Salmond and suggested that somehow the verdict was not definitive and that it had actually left them “devastated”.

They were “devastated”? I wonder how Alex Salmond and his loved ones feel? He has been plastered over every newspaper and media outlet in Scotland as a serial sex pest and potential rapist. He was found not guilty by a majority of women based on the evidence of other women but the group who made the accusations under the cloak of anonymity get to keep that anonymity and throw more stones at the reputation of Alex Salmond? That simply is not fair.

Alex Salmond Accusers Were Neither Credible nor Reliable Witnesses

The jury in the Alex Salmond trial clearly found the evidence of his nine anonymous accusers unreliable, not credible or both. It is conceivable that some or all the accusers were simply not telling the truth. Perhaps a perjury enquiry into the evidence they gave will now be launched and that matter can be more fully explored? Do not hold your breath though as it would appear the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) in Scotland are only interested in hunting down Salmond and those who supported him not those who have been shown to be purveyors of not credible and/or unreliable evidence.

Mark Hirst was a defence witness for Alex Salmond. He was not called to give evidence. He knows Alex Salmond well. He knows the SNP inside out. He has supported Scottish independence all his adult life and worked for several SNP MSPs during a period of nine years at the Scottish Parliament. Mark is also a very talented broadcaster, writer, journalist and documentary maker. He is an ardent trade unionist who stood up against the tech firm VIASYSTEMS away back in 1998 when they closed their Borders factory and threw 1,000 workers on the dole. Mark was the elected trade union organiser who fought the owners all the way before being sacked alongside his colleagues. Mark is a fighter with a proven track record of standing up to the powerful for the powerless no matter the odds. I wonder how many of his detractors have such a track record?

Mark worked as a reporter for Scottish Television (STV) and has several award-winning documentaries to his name. He also worked at Radio Sputnik / Sputnik News UK where he was appointed Editor-in-Chief. During his nine years as a researcher for several SNP MSPs he organised the research staff into the National Union of Journalists to secure better pay and conditions for the staff from all political parties. He has worked in Public Relations at both local and national government and always promoted equality and social justice. His support for civil liberties is peerless. Mark is someone you want in your corner when fighting to break free from the exploitative and ruthless British state.

Mark Hirst is a Man of Substance – He Is No Criminal

In the face of the continued witch-hunt against his friend and political ally Alex Salmond Mark Hirst felt compelled to speak out in his defence. On 29th March, the day the nine women who had denied being co-conspirators managed to conspire to produce a joint statement about their ‘devastation’ at the not guilty verdict, Mark made a short video. He expressed his opinion that the continued attempts to undermine Alex Salmond were unfair, unjustified and politically motivated from quarters within the SNP who were comfortable to be on the payroll but were “soft” on independence, the primary reason for the formation and existence of that political party.

He made the point that given the political motivation of the accusations against Alex Salmond there would inevitably be repercussions that would involve further enquiries and investigations making the continued anonymity of the accusers difficult to maintain. His comments were entirely political in nature concerning the lack of urgency and action in taking Scotland further along the road to independence. He stated clearly that he knew the identities of all the accusers but gave absolutely no hints as to the identity of any of them.

The video was made available to his own Followers on Twitter and YouTube via a closed link. Mark did not Re-Tweet the video or send it to any SNP officials or any of the Salmond accusers. It has had little more than 2,300 views.

Mark was subject to a police raid on his home on April 20th. Five detectives swooped unannounced with a search warrant and removed his mobile phone and computers. During the biggest health crisis in a century it was a matter considered important enough to despatch five police officers to Mark’s home to pursue. Strange priorities indeed. When informed the issue of concern was the short video Mark had made on 29th March, he offered to remove it or change the setting to ‘private’ to severely restrict access to it. The police declined that offer and even suggested such a move could be construed as ‘tampering with evidence’…

The video is allegedly criminal. Despite Mark’s computer and phone being in the possession of the police since April 20th when he appeared voluntarily at the Edinburgh police station on Tuesday, 12th May, the only charge he faced was in connection with the video he had posted on 29th March and which he offered to remove while the five officers occupied and searched his house. It is bizarre indeed that the police have prevented the removal of a video online which they allege is criminal.

After a short interview Mark was criminally charged under Section 127, subsection (1a) of the Communication Act which reads:

127. Improper use of public electronic communications network

(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he—

(a) sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character

The video Mark made is available to view. Mark’s offer to remove it was declined by the police. They have not chosen to remove it either. You can view that video here. I invite you to view it and assess for yourself if it is “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”?

To be fair there is probably a case to be made that Mark’s beard is ‘offensive’ to some, ‘indecent’ to others and perhaps ‘obscene or menacing’ in character! If this matter were not so serious it would deserve ridicule.

Defenders of Freedom of Expression Must Defend Mark Hirst

If what Mark Hirst said in this video constitutes a crime in Scotland 2020 then we are in deep shit folks. Free speech, freedom of expression, basic human rights are empty and meaningless words. In the midst of the most serious health threat in the last 100 years we have police officers despatched to Mark Hirst’s home to confiscate his phone and computer under a court warrant and the formal charging of a man for making and issuing a video which contains his honest and politely expressed opinions with no threats, no names, no personal details. This is the stuff of police states. This is what happens in authoritarian regimes where freedom of expression is prohibited.

If Mark Hirst is a criminal today in Scotland then I fear for each and every one of us who holds political opinions, particularly opinions in support of Scottish independence and against the neo-liberal economic Establishment. We had better be prepared for the police knock on our door in the weeks ahead.

I am enraged that a good, decent, honest and compassionate man is now an alleged criminal. The pattern recently is extremely worrying.

Worrying Pattern of Censorship and Intimidation

One of the most popular and effective pro-independence websites on Twitter, Wings Over Scotland, was removed, then the personal account of the promoter of that site, Stu Campbell, was also recently closed. Although not sharing all Campbell’s views or the way he often expresses them I defend his right to advocate for independence and deal with critics as robustly as they deal with him. His Wings site used to have over 250,000 unique visitors a month. The closure of his sites is sinister and should be opposed.

We already have the enigmatic and outspoken champion of human rights Craig Murray, former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan, being subjected to a criminal contempt of court charge for his coverage of the Alex Salmond trial when all objective analysis shows his coverage was less likely to constitute a contempt of court than the coverage of the mainstream newspaper detractors of Alex Salmond. It is clear the charge is more about trying to clip the wings of a powerful social media voice and silence a dissident voice than pursuing genuine contempt of court charges .

Is it just a coincidence that in the space of only a few weeks prominent Alex Salmond supporters find themselves subject to criminal charges by the COPFS in Scotland and censored on Twitter? I do not trust coincidences when they so conveniently amount to a weakening of the voices for independence and a clear warning to supporters of Alex Salmond to watch their step or else? Often individuals are targeted for harsh treatment to serve warnings on others. Well I say no to intimidation. Do not be cowered into submission or silence by the powerful COPFS in Scotland.

I urge you to support the Mark Hirst Defence Campaign in any way you can via www.civillibertyscotland.com. If we don’t speak up now in defence of those guilty of no crime other than expressing their opinions and speaking truth to power then we will all one day be caught in the tangled web of thought control and authoritarian rule which will render us powerless to oppose injustice and resist draconian restrictions on our freedoms.

Mark Hirst did not intend to offend or cause harm to anyone. He is a gentle man and strident peace activist. A man of considerable integrity and unflinching commitment to the cause of Scottish independence, equality and civil liberties. He is thoroughly deserving of our support.

Tommy Sheridan

Solidarity Convenor and NUJ Member

 

*These are the thoughts and views of Tommy Sheridan and don’t necessarily reflect those of Solidarity – Scotland’s Socialist Movement*

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