The right-wing business tycoons behind Alex Salmond's independence campaign

At first sight, Rupert Murdoch and Alex Salmond do not make obvious bedfellows. Murdoch is the right-wing media mogul whose outlets, from the News of the World to Fox News, slap down progressive policy across the world. Salmond is the visionary leader promising a more socialist society for Scotland if it can break free of the rest of the UK.

But Murdoch's trip to Scotland last week was just the latest stage in a long friendship between the two men, in which back-room efforts to help Murdoch's business goals coincide with favourable media coverage.

Salmond enjoys this type of relationship with several wealthy right-wing figures from across the world. He "called in" a golf course for Donald Trump above the wishes of local residents. He accepted donations from Stagecoach boss Brian Souter shortly before changing SNP policy on bus regulation. The list goes on.

The full extent of Salmond's friendship with Murdoch only really came to light during the phone-hacking scandal. A month after the News of the World shut down it was revealed Salmond had held over two dozen meetings with Murdoch, his son James - who ran News International and BSkyB - and other Murdoch editors and executives.

During this time the SNP developed a secret policy of backing Murdoch's BSkyB bid, which was not to be made public. Emails released by News Corporation showed Salmond agreed to make a call to Jeremy Hunt, then media secretary, to support the takeover attempt.

Meanwhile, social events continued apace. Salmond and Murdoch exchanged gushing letters, held private dinners and offered each other tickets to sporting events. Salmond was Murdoch's guest of honour for an unveiling of his company's new printing presses. Murdoch was given tickets by Salmond to see a National Theatre play on Iraq. He then sent him tickets to the Ryder Cup golf tournament as an official Scottish government guest. The media mogul was the first minister's guest of honour at a special pageant in Edinburgh castle. Murdoch called Salmond  the "most brilliant politician in UK".

The friendship coincided with a period of growing support for the SNP from Murdoch's Scottish newspaper. In 2007 the Sun put the SNP logo in a noose on its front page with a dire warning about calamity if Scots opted for the nationalists. But by the next election it abandoned its support for Labour and swung behind Salmond. Editor David Dinsmore wrote to him days afterwards congratulating him on his "astonishing victory".

As the 'Yes camp gained ground in the polls last week, Murdoch said a vote for independence would be a "huge black eye for whole political establishment" and then added: "Everything [is] up for grabs". It's unclear what he meant by this, but in the same week Salmond went on the offensive against the BBC, refusing to answer Nick Robinson's questions at a press conference and threatening to force it into an inquiry about Treasury leaks. On Sunday, a large demonstration of 'Yes' supporters took place outside the BBC building, in which large posters of Robinson were raised singling out the journalist for allegedly biased reporting.

Accusations of cronyism have long haunted Salmond. His relationship with Stagecoach boss Souter has proved hardly less problematic than his one with Murdoch.
Souter founded Stagecoach with his sister and proceeded to take full advantage of the deregulation of bus services in the UK. He ran free or low-fare bases on local routes to push other firms out the market – a practice deemed "predatory, deplorable and against the public interest" by the Monopolies Commission.

The tycoon had a sideline in anti-gay rights campaigning. He spent a million pounds organising a private referendum across Scotland against attempts to repeal the infamous Section 28 law outlawing the 'promotion of homosexuality'. He warned society was in danger of "imploding" into a "Babylonian-Greek" culture where sex is "primarily a recreational activity", if "traditional marriage" continued to decline.

In 2007, Salmond received a big donation from Souter and called him "one of the outstanding entrepreneurs of his generation". The donation came not long after the party opposed the right for gay couples to be given equal treatment by Catholic adoption agencies and the snubbing of a gay rights debate. One month after the donation, the SNP dropped its commitment for increased regulation of the bus network.

Similar complaints were made when Salmond rode roughshod over the wishes of local residents and planners to "call in" the decision to approve Donald Trump's golf complex plan on the Aberdeenshire coast.

The area was one of special scientific and environmental sensitivity. Councillors rejected the development. Salmond's government overruled them.

Two documentary films were made about the row by Anthony Baxter. To his credit, Trump did at least agree to talk to the director. But after four years of asking for an interview, Salmond refuses to meet with him.

Baxter said:

"Whatever you may think of the Trumps, they cooperated fully and answered all of our questions.

"The same can't be said of Scotland's first minister Alex Salmond, whose government made the decision to allow Trump to destroy a protected conservation site of special scientific interest, in order to build Aberdeenshire's 62nd golf course.

"Our efforts to interview the first minister took up several months. To begin with, his office requested that any interview be played in its entirety in the final film. After we refused, his office scheduled, postponed, rescheduled, then finally cancelled the interview at the last minute.

"Among other things, we wanted to ask the first minister on camera about the effect of the Trump golf course development on local residents, including a 90-year-old woman who hasn't had a proper water supply for four years, and about what happened to the 6,000 jobs his government promised when approving the development."

Salmond's assessment of good business practice was raised again when it emerged how strongly he egged on the calamitous acquisition of ABN Amro, which sunk the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS).

In 2007, Salmond wrote to Fred 'the Shred' Goodwin:

"I want you to know I am watching events closely on the ABN front. It is in Scottish interests for RBS to be successful, and I would like to offer any assistance my office can provide. Good luck with the bid."

It was a remarkable letter to have sent. The Scottish first minister was advising an FTSE 100 company to load up on debt and make a highly questionable acquisition which would later come to destroy it. A few months and £45 billion in taxpayer's money later, Salmond admitted he regretted it. But for many businessmen, the link between friendship with Salmond and policy-making was clear enough.

Many wealthy right-wingers behind the Scottish independence campaign have a very different view of Scotland to the one being promoted by SNP's official literature. Social democracy and a generous welfare system are nowhere to be seen in this account. Instead, independence will open up the economy to further private interests as Scotland cuts down on regulations to attract foreign investment.

As Michael Fry, the founder of independence site Wealthy Nation, said: "We must make clear to voters that they can most readily make their country better by emulating their Victorian forebears in the pursuit of profitable opportunities."

Jim McColl, who is domiciled in Monaco with his £800 million fortune, is an official economic adviser to Salmond. His vision of Scotland is very far away from the aims of campaigners on the street. It is also very different to Salmond's rhetoric, although not to his actions. After all, despite demanding more tax powers for a fairer society, the SNP leader's only actual tax policy is to cut corporation tax by three per cent below the rest of the UK.

The PR for the 'Yes' camp remains resolutely left-wing and idealistic. But behind the scenes, there are men of a quite different character egging it on.

Thousands may be sexually abused behind bars – but MoJ still blocks the inquiry

Article updated. See below

The Ministry of Justice is continuing to block efforts to speak to prisoners about sexual abuse behind bars, despite evidence that thousands of inmates may be subject to attacks.

The third briefing from the Commission on Sex in Prison, which has been barred from going into jails in England and Wales, suggests at least 850 people have been sexually abused in prison, although the real number is likely to be far higher.

But the MoJ is refusing to budge on allowing the group to talk to prisoners about sexual abuse, forcing it to rely on testimony from former prisoners, governors and agencies.

The inquiry had been given the go-ahead by former justice secretary Ken Clarke, but its authorisation was suddenly cancelled when Chris Grayling took over the role. There were rumours his decision was based on personal animosity toward the Howard League for Penal Reform, which is behind the project.

Sources also suggested the justice secretary had shouted "prisoners aren't going to have sex on my watch" when notified of the inquiry.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League, said:

"The broadly comparable proportions of prisoners reporting sexual victimisation in the US and in England and Wales suggest that this issue is much more serious than previously thought. It is therefore particularly disappointing that the Ministry of Justice refused to allow the commission to interview prisoners directly. We hope that all the political parties consider the lessons from the US and do more to recognise and combat this problem."

A survey of prisoners is conducted by the Inspectorate of Prisons as part of the inspection process, in which inmates are asked if they have been abused by fellow prisoners or staff. The surveys found approximately one per cent of prisoners have been abused, although it is expected that this is below the real number because many inmates will resist talking about their experience. Some may not even recognise it as abuse.

The one per cent figure roughly tallies with a ten-year old study of 208 prisoners in England and Wales, which found one per cent reporting rape and 5.3% reporting coercive sex.

If accurate, it means between 850 and 1,650 prisoners are abused while in jail, although the real figure is likely to be far higher.

The US was once similarly resistant to looking into sex in prison, but once investigations were undertaken it was discovered that the problem was much bigger than originally thought. The extent of the abuse was so horrifying the Prison Rape Elimination Act was then passed with rare bipartisan support.

Once it was recognised that the number of recorded assaults in prisons was just a fraction of the real level of assault, the US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) started conducting annual surveys on sexual violence. Its most recent data suggested two per cent of prisoners had been victims of a non-consensual sex act, while four per cent had been sexually victimised.

Lovisa Stannow, executive director of US-based Just Detention International, said: "As long as rape in prison is cloaked in silence, this kind of violence will continue unabated.

"In the US, we have seen first-hand the importance of serious, nationwide research to determine the prevalence and dynamics of sexual abuse in detention. With reliable data in hand, we have managed to move away from denial and toward a recognition that prisoner rape is a nationwide crisis. Only on that basis have we been able to undertake a serious effort to make US prisons safe.

"In the UK and the US alike, I am convinced that most people agree that when the government takes away someone's freedom, it assumes an absolute responsibility to keep that person safe. No matter what the crime, rape should never be part of the penalty."

The commission's briefing paper suggests sexual assaults in prison rose in 2013 and are now at their highest recorded level since 2005. It found gay and transgender prisoners are at the highest risk.

Police investigations are rare. Authorities often prefer to not call them in and instead rely on internal inquiries, although these are often unsatisfactory. There is currently no guidance for staff on how to deal with those who suffer sexual assault.

A victim of sexual assault in prison told Politics.co.uk that many people who had suffered assault would not admit to themselves what had happened, because it challenged their sense of masculinity. Anyone who dared report the assault could be subject to attack by other inmates for speaking to the authorities. Even if a complaint was made, staff often ignored it.

They said:

"They don't want to hear it. I did report it. I was moved rooms. That's literally all that happened. If they do acknowledge it, they have to file a report with the local police. The police come in and interview people. They have to find a secure prison at short notice willing to take the other party. That's paper work. It's administration. It's cost."

The prison and probation ombudsman has described rape in prison as a "hidden issue in a hidden world". It found some abusive sexual behaviour was not taken seriously.

But even with evidence of bad practice in prisons, signs that the problem could be as prevalent as in the US, and an active investigation under way which could get some firm data on it, the MoJ is still refusing to budge.

For the time being, the Commission on Sex in Prison will continue to be hamstrung by resistance from the justice secretary.

Update 09:54 BST 15/09/14:

Labour shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan commented:

"While the prisons crisis deepens, the justice secretary continues to deny there’s any problems. What's more, he is blocking others from research which he knows would expose the mess he's presiding over.

"Despite his best actions, this report has still managed to lift the lid on the shocking levels of sexual violence going on in our jails. But burying heads in the sand, as David Cameron's government is doing, won't sort this out.

"Successfully rehabilitating criminals to stop them going on to create more victims of crime on their release will be all the more hard if prisons are places of lawlessness and violence."

Prisons minister Andrew Selous commented:

"Sexual relations between prisoners are not common place. We do not condone sex in prisons or believe that prisoners in a relationship should share a cell.

"Reported incidents of sexual assault in prison are rare. Where an alleged sexual assault is reported or discovered it will be investigated and reported to the police if required. We continue to work hard to understand the reasons for the increase in assaults, including sexual assaults, and we are comprehensively reviewing how we manage violence, including sexual violence, in prisons and working with the police and CPS to introduce a new approach to the investigation of crime."

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said:

"We wouldn't as a matter of course let any third party group have unfettered access to the prison estate. We had significant concerns about the methodology proposed for this research project and the validity of the results it would have produced. The government has routinely commissioned and published research into a wide range of penal issues and we are reviewing whether this issue should be incorporated into our future research programme."

Update 16:53 BST:

I've asked what the MoJ's "significant concerns" were about the research. They said the group would have been self-selecting. 

How did a detainee die in Morton Hall immigration centre?

Very little is known about the last moments of Rubel Ahmed. We know he was from Bangladesh and that he was 26-years-old. Those who speak of him mention that he was good-hearted and shy. According to most reports, he had only been in Morton Hall immigration detention centre a few days.

He died at some point between Friday night and Saturday morning. We do not know how and we do not know why. We know that after news of his death spread around the detainees, staff at Morton Hall retreated behind a secure fence. There was then a protest - or a riot, depending on how you look at it. That evening a Tornado unit, designed to quell prison riots, rushed the centre and returned everyone to their rooms.

That is what we know. Everything else is disputed.

There are two mutually incompatible accounts of what caused the death. The authorities say it was a suicide. Fellow detainees say he had been complaining of chest pains and repeatedly called for help, which he did not receive.

"We are being told it was suicide and he didn't press his bell once," one prison guard tells me, on condition of anonymity. "The death was used as an excuse for unrest."

According to this account, Ahmed was alive and well at 21:00, when the first of the night's cell checks are conducted by the guards. There is another check at 23:00 and one again at 05:00. At the 23:00 check, the guards couldn't see him. They then called for help and found him dead.

"No-one knows who he was," the guard says. "He'd never come to our attention for any reason. He wasn't being watched closely because he wasn't a suicide risk. They say his flight was quite imminent. Everyone's assuming he didn't want to get back on the plane to leave."

The detainees were also told it was a suicide. Some of them mention that they were told it was a result of hanging.

"They held a meeting and said he committed suicide with a cable from the TV and hanged himself in the shower," a group of them whisper to me down the phone from one of the cells.

"There's no space for him to tie a rope or cable. The cable from the TV isn't that strong that it could hold the weight of a person. No-one believes it. Everyone knows. We are here, we know how the showers are. There's no space on the shower to tie the cable."

Detainees in neighbouring cells say Ahmed was complaining of a feeling of suffocation and that there was a pain in his chest. They say he repeatedly tried to get the guards' attention, but none came.

"The guys in the nearby rooms said he'd been kicking the door, he'd been pressing the alarm bell," they say.

"Usually they come in a minute. But that day, nobody came. The staff said he didn't ring any bell. The guys in the other room said he was ringing the bell, he was kicking the door, he was screaming, but none of the staff came."

Even the guards do not necessarily believe the authorities' version of events.

"They are fucking liars," the guard tells me, of his own bosses. "They don't tell the truth, not by a long way. I've been in this job a long time and I know it's a load of bollocks. We're being told no-one is in the frame for this. Whatever the truth is, it's never going to come out. We won't even look at it. How will we ever know if he pressed his bell or not? We'll never know. They're saying he didn't and it's as simple as that."

There's good reason to be sceptical about both accounts. On the one hand, the authorities may want to conceal their behaviour, especially if they failed in their duty of care.

Their response to the death on Saturday was lacking. Not only did they not announce it, but they failed to even get in contact with journalists until hours after the story had broken. Morton Hall directed calls to the Ministry of Justice, who answered an hour later and passed the call on to the Home Office, who did not answer until several hours later. It was a disgraceful approach by the state to the death of someone in its care. They did not even contact Ahmed's family. They were informed by his solicitor, who had been told what happened by a fellow detainee.

But the description of a TV cable and the shower is problematic. If Ahmed died of a heart attack, as many detainees believe, authorities are unlikely to inform them of a method of death which would leave evidence to the contrary. Detention centres are, after all, hotbeds of rumour. That said, the authorities' response was so shambolic, you wouldn't put this past them. There are many contradictory accounts whirling around the staff and detainees of the centre.

It'll be a while before we get a clearer picture. First there need to be investigations by the police and the prison and probation ombudsman. Only then do we get a coroner's inquest.

Either way, news of the death spread at breakfast time the next day. Things very quickly became heated.

"My personal opinion is we shouldn't have opened any doors," the guard says. "We should have spoken to everyone. Whoever was in charge made a bad mistake to stick to that regime. The dining hall was opened for breakfast from 8am. That allowed them to go organise whatever they wanted.

"A death in custody is never nice, it needs to be explained. But it's typical prison service - we don't like to communicate."

According to this account, the staff retreated to safety after being secretly told by a detainee that they were in danger.

"A detainee tipped us off," he said. "He went back and said to the guards: 'You need to withdraw, because you're going to be in danger. We rang round very quickly and said we need to leave. Threats were being made. It was getting very uncomfortable indeed."

The detainees say they woke that morning and by the time they went for breakfast a protest was already happening.

"The guys were doing a protest outside the main gate," they say. "We came outside and by about half nine all the staff were off the facilities. There was no-one in the main building. They left the building straight away. They didn't give answers to anyone.

"All day, the guys did the protest. We weren't asking guards for anything. We were just standing outside."

A shop window was broken, so detainees could grab snacks after not being fed all day. There was damage to the medical centre and guards say there was damage to the residential units.

The guards point out that Morton Hall is unlike many other detention centres, because it holds a disproportionate number of former criminals, who are often at the centre of disorder. They are surrounded by law-abiding men who have been made desperate by the immigration system.

"These people have been in the UK 30 years - some were born here," the guard says.

"They've Yorkshire accents, cockney accents. They're being sent back to countries where they've got no ties whatsoever. They will riot. And that's what they've done."

There have been numerous complaints about how many former prisoners end up in Morton Hall. Guards find it hard to deal with the influx. Immigration detainees, who have committed no crime, are flung in among them in open conditions.

"It's very tribal," the guard says. "The Vietnamese hang together, the Afghans, the Nigerians. If one Nigerian has a problem with an Afghan, then it's the Nigerians versus the Afghans. We don't get a lot of trouble, but when we do, we get carnage. The incidents have gone up since the Home Office decided to send us former foreign national prisoners. We're getting far too many."

Once staff got behind the fence, they called in a Tornado unit to retake control of the detention centre. Meanwhile, they filmed proceedings so they could later pick out the ringleaders and ship them out to other institutions. Thirty or so men have already been removed.

Eventually the Tornado unit turned up. The sight of the riot squad scared the detainees.

"It was scary when everyone saw them," they say. "They were in riot gear, with proper boots, helmets, masks - black riot gear. There were dogs in there as well."

As the guard puts it: "One hundred and fourteen of them fully kitted up is enough to scare the shit out of anyone."

The unit got the men back in their cells by late evening, where they stayed without food. Order was returned to Morton Hall. The trouble died down.

But there will be a next time. Morton Hall is an incendiary combination of factors. Men who have been imprisoned for months on end without having committed a crime, faced with return to a country they have never visited, torn away from family and friends, thrown in with over 100 former prisoners, some of them very serious. The question is not why there was trouble on Saturday. It's why there wasn't trouble earlier.

In the meantime, we wait for the inquiries into the death of Rubel Ahmed. However he died – suicide, heart attack or something else - he was a victim of Morton Hall.

Timeline: How Morton Hall fell apart

Latest entries