Glasgow Herald plays a hand in conviction of Lord Watson

By Hamish Mackay

Glasgow Herald deputy editor Joan McAlpine played a key role in the
downfall of Scottish Labour peer Lord Watson, who has been convicted of
setting fire to the Prestenfield Hotel in Edinburgh at the paper’s
Scottish Politician of the Year awards.

Watson, who has resigned as MSP for Glasgow Cathcart, this week
admitted in court to deliberately starting a fire at the event. He will
appear for sentencing at Edinburgh Sheriff Court on 22 September.

The
bizarre incident culminated when a blaze broke out at 2.16am after an
invitation-only party for VIP guests following the main awards ceremony.

Shortly
after hotel staff had extinguished blazing curtains in a reception
room, Herald staff, including deputy editor Joan McAlpine, were told
that CCTV footage identified a kilted figure who had been observed
behaving oddly before the incident.

McAlpine obtained stills of
the footage, which were splashed exclusively on the front page of The
Herald on 13 November. Copies were also passed to police, who launched
an investigation.

In court, Paul Burns, Watson’s lawyer, told the
sheriff the publication of the CCTV images was instrumental in starting
the criminal investigation.

Armed with the stills, Herald
reporter Calum Macdonald confronted Watson with them in his Glasgow
constituency office later on the day of the incident.

In a
front-page story after Watson’s guilty plea, Macdonald revealed how
Watson, despite the damning CCTV footage, refused to admit
responsibility.

“He [Watson] was brusque and confrontational
during the short interview. He only reluctantly agreed to speak to me,
then ordered our photographer out of his offices and, when I produced
the images, he tried to snatch them from out of my hands.

“He
denied any culpability and, when asked if he was responsible for
starting the fire, replied: ‘Absolutely not’. But I would have expected
anyone wrongly accused of such a serious offence to react with
indignation. He carefully hedged his bets.

“When I presented him
with the four pictures and put it to him that they showed him setting
the curtain alight, he replied: ‘I can’t say that’s me. It’s not
conclusive’. It was the classic politician’s response – calculated to
evade the question rather than answer it.”

When Macdonald asked Watson if he had been drunk at the time, the peer replied: “I don’t think so.”

It
also emerged that shortly before the fire, Watson had been roaming the
hotel, “forcefully” asking staff for more wine and he had been
challenged about his erratic conduct by Kerry Bottomley, The Herald’s
events manager.

Scottish Labour have said that Watson’s future with the party will be discussed after sentencing.

Although
Watson, 56, could be jailed, he will still remain a member of the House
of Lords and will be entitled to pensions as a former Westminster MP
and former MSP and Scottish executive minister when he reaches 65.

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