Sturgeon’s office ‘tried to stop publication of Mackay schoolboy story’

Severin Carrell – The Guardian Feb 7, 2020

Leadership hopes: Disgraced Mackay seen with SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon in December. Click to enlarge

The Scottish government faces fresh questions about the Derek Mackay scandal after it emerged it challenged the Sun’s right to publish revelations about his private messages with a schoolboy.

Mackay resigned on Wednesday night after the Sun told him and Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, it was publishing some of the 270 messages he sent to the 16-year-old between August last year and 1 February.

Mackay told the unnamed schoolboy he was “really cute”, invited him to dinner and to a Scottish parliament event.

Opposition leaders and senior Scottish National party figures said the messages were tantamount to grooming, and predatory.

Sturgeon said in a statement on Thursday: “I think the conduct is unacceptable and I will not make any attempt to say otherwise or to minimise in any way its seriousness. Based on what I knew about this last night, it was clear to me then that Derek Mackay’s conduct fell far short of what is expected of a minister.”

Sturgeon, who is also the SNP leader, told MSPs that Mackay had been suspended from the party. “I say very clearly that I am not aware of any further allegations or any conduct of a similar nature,” she added.

As further claims about Mackay’s private life came to light, it emerged that on Wednesday Sturgeon’s office had disputed the Sun’s right to publish the story.

Mackay, until then her highly trusted and powerful finance secretary, was due to deliver the Scottish government’s annual budget on Thursday afternoon, setting out billions of pounds in new spending.

Two hours after it alerted Sturgeon’s office to the story, the Sun said, her office emailed the paper to claim that publication could be an intrusion into private and family life. The email asked for a guarantee the messages were obtained legally and said the Sun was morally obliged to pass them all to the government.

The email said: “Given you yourself state that there is nothing illegal or unlawful in the messages, can you advise on your justification for publication, given the intrusion into private and family life, and correspondence including digital communication.”

The Sun was asked to confirm in writing “that the material has been obtained by legitimate means”, and for “the material you are basing this story on to be emailed across to us as soon as possible”.

The government said the Sun had a “moral obligation to share this material in order for us to be in a position to offer any form of substantive response or view”.

The Sun insisted that Alan Muir, its Scottish editor, had read out the most significant and damaging messages to Sturgeon’s office in two 15-minute phone conversations at 5.50pm and 6.40pm.

Sturgeon’s officials believed they were justified in asking these questions, and in asking for written evidence, because of the seriousness and significance of the allegations.

Mackay was allowed to resign later that evening and the Scottish government refused to provide the paper with a response. The Sun published its main story online at 11pm on Wednesday.

Until 2018 Mackay was the SNP’s national chairman and business convenor, and in charge of running party conferences. There was gossip within the party about his flirtatious behaviour after hours during conference.

The Record reported that Mackay had sent private Facebook messages to a 21-year-old activist, Shaun Cameron, in September 2017 asking whether he had any “naughty pictures” and suggesting they meet at Mackay’s Edinburgh flat.

Another former SNP staff member told the Herald that Mackay was ordered by Sturgeon to stop partying and drinking at conferences after his behaviour was discussed in internal meetings. He allegedly quipped during one conference in 2017 that delegates would not see him in the bar that night because “Nicola won’t let me”.

Jackson Carlaw, the Scottish Conservative leader, said the allegations raised substantial questions for the Scottish government and SNP to answer. “It’s vital the SNP leadership, instead of spinning, acts to establish a complete picture,” Carlaw said.

“There has been a collective failure of leadership both from the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and the current SNP business convener, Kirsten Oswald. Both now need to respond and act with far greater urgency and understanding.”

The government could have set up a hotline to report other concerns about Mackay’s conduct, he added. The Scottish parliament did so after allegations about misconduct by MSPs emerged in 2018.

An SNP spokesperson said: “Derek Mackay has been suspended from both the parliamentary group and the party while further investigation takes place. In the interests of due process, no further comment will be made.”

Mackay has been approached for comment.

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