In a shocking development, The Telegraph is reporting that Alex Salmond personally telephoned Louise Richardson regarding comments she had made about the impact of independence on higher education.
The paper claims that Mr Salmond had a “heated” conversation which lasted around ten minutes where he attempted to “put words in her mouth” about the impact of independence.
The Daily Telegraph also claims to have obtained emails via a freedom of information (FOI) request that show the First Minister’s office tried to pressure the principal into releasing a favourable Scottish government statement whilst criticising Westminster over higher education policy.
The alleged pressure came after Professor Richardson gave an interview to The Times last March where she warned of the negative consequences of independence: “If we were cut off from national research councils it would be catastrophic for this institution [St Andrews]….We would lose our top academics…”
The newspaper claims Salmond’s Chief of Staff, Mr Geoff Aberdein, contacted the university’s press office with a statement they wanted professor Richardson to publish under her name. This statement praised the Scottish government as having ‘risen to the challenge’ over tuition fees.
Professor Richardson, clearly unhappy with the statement, emailed her press team with the message: “I’m sorry but I’m afraid I cannot agree to this”.
Faced with rejection, The Telegraph claims Mr Aberdein continued to email Niall Scott, head of press relations. Eventually, the university agreed to release a statement to the effect that the principal acknowledged the Scottish Government’s efforts in securing research funding.
There is currently no suggestion Mr Salmond was responsible or knew about the statement his office wanted Professor Richardson to sign.
The University press department confirmed that a telephone call between Mr Salmond and Professor Richardson occurred on the 1st March.
This latest development comes after The Sinner’s predecessor, The Albany Parker, first broke the story that Louise Richardson had emailed all staff encouraging them not to be afraid to discuss their opinions regarding Scottish independence.
The referendum vote is on the 18th September. The final opinion polls all show the same result with the ‘No’ camp with a slender 4 point lead:
Opinium for The Telegraph
ICM for The Scotsman
Survation for The Daily Mail
All results are shown excluding “don’t knows”.
Louise Richardson’s full email to staff:
It cannot have escaped your notice that the referendum on independence is less than a year away, nor that this vote is one of critical importance to the country, not to mention the university.
I have been concerned to read in the press that academics may feel constrained about speaking publicly on the issue or fear adverse consequences if they do. I am also familiar with the press criticism of Scottish Principals for our silence on the issue.
When academics become leaders of universities we sacrifice the freedom to speak publicly solely in our own name. For a range of reasons I have concluded that it would not be in the best interests of the university for me to speak publicly on the issue at this time. I would very much hope, however, that university staff feel no constraints whatever in expressing their views, whatever they are, on the issue of independence. Indeed I would encourage you to do so. At times of national uncertainty the public justifiably look to universities for reasoned debate and considered argument and I think it incumbent upon us to provide just that. Whether or not my personal views are in accord with yours, I assure you that any external pressure to limit or suppress debate will stop at my door.
There is an old inscription over the gate to the former University Botanical Garden on Queen’s Terrace that reads: “They have said and they will say. Let them be saying.” It is a useful and timeless reminder of the university’s commitment to free speech.