I Met a Speech That Wasn’t There

I lost my grandad to lung cancer, oh, too many years ago. Long enough ago that I couldn’t say for sure exactly how old I was when he died without ringing my mom to ask her when it was.

Memories fade over time, but the one vivid legacy my grandad gave me was a deep and abiding love of nonsense poetry. My strongest remaining memories of him are all of him reciting silly little nonsense poems which would always reduce me and my cousins to fits of unrestrained laughter. As I grew older, I began to discover ny grandad’s sources. Most of the poems and rhymes, it turned out, were classics of literature by Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and, of course, the great Spike Milligan. However, the poem I’d always liked best was to one that took me the longest to track down – its a delightful poem called ‘Antagonish‘ by an American educator and poet called Hughes Mearns and it begins with…

Yesterday, upon the stair,

I met a man who wasn’t there

He wasn’t there again today

I wish, I wish he’d go away…

That last sentiment is one that I suspect will be popular in the press office  of Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister over the next day or two for reasons which will shortly become extremely clear.

I think the best way to approach this is to run through the events of in strict chronological sequence, a sequence that began a little before 1pm (13:00 BST) on 27th July 2011 with a blog post at Love and Garbage which noted a rather curious omission from the list of Alex Salmond’s speeches contained in the archives the Scottish Government’s website:

In March 2008 Alex Salmond addressed an audience at Harvard University.  Some of you may remember it. In the speech the First Minister referred to the “arc of prosperity” or Ireland, Iceland, and Norway; he referred to “ the remarkable success of indigenous companies that have become global, Nokia in Finland, Ericsson in Sweden, Maersk shipping in Denmark or for that matter the Royal Bank of Scotland.” (not the last of his praise for the Royal Bank); he said “the lesson we draw from our neighbours in Ireland – the Celtic Tiger economy – where annual growth has averaged more than 6% over the past two decades, is that with the right strategy, there are no limits to success in the modern global economy.”…

At the time this speech was heavily publicised on the Scottish government website. They issued a press release about it. And they put the whole speech on the Scottish government website for your delectation and delight. The speech was here. But for some reason that speech isn’t there any more.

In fact if you go to the full collection of the First Minister’s big set-piece speeches since taking office you will discover that while the speech is referred to the Harvard speech is the only one that does not have a live link. And the only one without a live link is the one where Alex Salmond, seer of seers, praises the Royal Bank, HBoS, and praises the Irish economy as a model to follow…

Curiouser and curiouser, said Alice…

I spotted a link to L&G’s post in my Twitter timeline at 13:10 BST, which I retweeted and received the following reply from them  a couple of minutes late (13:12 BST):

@Unity_MoT I am hoping a journalist makes appropriate enquiries. I wouldn’t know who to ask.

Being a helpful sort, I quickly flipped a link of L&G’s post over to Sunny Hundal with a suggestion that run it up to someone at the New Statesman, on the off chance it might make for a mildly interesting little story but, as luck would have it, David Allen Green, the NS’s legal correspondent (aka Jack of Kent) happened to be online at the time and picked up on the brief exchange between myself and L&G.

So, at 13:18 BST, I received this tweet from David:

@Unity_MoT @sunny_hundal @loveandgarbage On to it.

While this was happening, I took the opportunity to scoot off the Scottish Government website and check L&G’s story for myself – and it did, indeed, check out perfectly. I quickly tracked down the archive list of Alex Salmond’s speeches and discovered that it did include a reference to the ‘Celtic Lion’ speech, which was given at Harvard University in March 2008 but, as L&G correctly pointed out, the hyperlink on the speech led precisely nowhere – well, it gave up a 404 error if your clicked it.

Being a cautious soul in such matters, I took the liberty of grabbing a screenshot of the page, making sure to show both the exact hyperlink on the reference to the speech and the date and time of the screenshot, which you can view for yourself below:

If you click the image, it should come up at full size so you can see exactly what I captured. The date and time info is obviously on the lower right of the image and the URL of the page is in the address bar. If you look at lower left side of the image then a little above the Windows Start Menu icon you’ll see a URL in a box which Firefox displays if you hover over a hyperlink. That URL belongs to the blue ‘Harvard University speech’ link and links to the following location:


Based on the reference to ‘This-Week’ in the URL, my immediate thought was that this appeared to indicate that a bit of cock-up had occurred when the speech was moved to this archive at the end of May 2011. The archive itself is relatively new in so far as it was created towards the end of May 2011 in order to house speeches given by Salmond during his first term as Scotland’s First Minister, which ended with the recent Scottish Assembly elections. Salmond and the SNP secured a historic victory at that election, of course, securing an outright majority despite the Scottish electoral system being constructed specifically to prevent that happening and the an effective change of government, from a minority SNP administration to majority administration, its more or less standard practice to dump everything from the previous term into the archives in order to start the new parliamentary term with a clean slate.

So, nothing to write home about beyond the apparent coincidence that it’s perhaps the one speech that Salmond might prefer to forget, given the financial situation in which the Irish Republic and Iceland have found themselves since that speech was given that got lost down the back of First Minister’s online sofa in the move to the new archive.

That’s how is appeared for all of maybe ten minutes, which was as long it took David to call Salmond’s press office and enquire about the apparent absence of the speech, a conversation the outcome of which is documented in a short series of tweets starting at 13:28 BST:

13:28 BST @DavidAllenGreen – I don’t think the Scottish First Minister’s Press Office like me very much. Blogpost at @NewStatesman coming soon.

13:32 BST @DavidAllenGreen – Oh gosh, that was a *very aggressive* call from the Scots First Minister’s press office.

13:33 BST @DavidAllenGreen – “Your post is going to be misleading.” “Oh, can I quote you by name saying that?” “No, you CANNOT quote me by name.”

Judging by that last tweet, the press officer’s name may well have been Mystic Meg given their apparent foreknowledge of the content of an article that David hadn’t even written at that point.

Ordinarily, whenever you contact an organisation about a broken link on their website, their side of the conversation goes something along the lines of…

Really? Can you give me a minute while I check that…

… Oh, you’re right – Sorry about that.

Thanks for pointing that out. I’ll give the techie who looks after the site a call in the next few minutes and get it fixed.


That’s certain been my experience on contacting the likes of Amazon and Ebuyer about busted links and, of course, other bloggers are generally only to happy for feedback on any link errors on their blog, but the basic courtesies that work for pretty much everyone else on teh interwebs clearly seem to be rather lost on the staff at Salmond’s press office.

David is nothing if not as good as word and so, at 14:14 BST, up went his blog post at the New Statesman, in which he described his conversation with Salmond’s press office as follows:

In an aggressive phone call from the First Minister’s press office I was told this post (the one you are reading) was going to be “misleading” and “erroneous”. I hadn’t even written it at that stage. It would seem “that it was normal for speeches of the old administration to be taken down”. Now, how can one sensibly doubt this assurance?

The problem with that second argument – the one that follows the passive-aggressive “your post will be ‘misleading’ and ‘erroneous'” argument is that none of the other posts in the archive have been taken down. There are actually posts in there dating back May 2007, all of which made the move to the archive from the Scottish Government’s ‘live’ website without any apparent difficulties. Clearly, then, the speeches of the old administration weren’t being taken down at all, they were moved to a publicly available archive on the same website but in a slightly different location.

At this point, the smart money still said that what we were looking at was nothing more than a mildly embarrassing technical cock-up, one that had clearly caught a Malcolm Tucker wannabe at the press office sufficiently on the hop to prompt them to unwisely try and bullshit their way out of problem that probably didn’t exist. However, if you check the comments under David’s post then you’ll find that, somewhat miraculously, the full text of the Celtic Lion speech had reappeared by 14:45 BST and with a newly fixed hyperlink on the archive page which led to a slightly different location, albeit one that is consistent with the other posts in the archive. This revised URL is…


Okay, so they’ve fixed the problem with the site and the speech is now available in all its grossly over-optismistic glory but this doesn’t come anywhere close to accounting for the rather ‘in your face’ response that David had received from the First Minister’s press office only a little over an hour before, and the plot thickened further when, 16:12 BST, David posted this comment, which contains a statement from Donna Rafferty of the First Minister’s press office:

I can offer no explanation for how the speech is now available again on the Scottish government website.

However, I can add this statement from Donna Rafferty at the First Minister’s Press Office:

“This is misleading, because all Ministerial speeches recorded in the Speeches and Statements section during the previous administration (2007-2011) remain available. These speeches include the First Minister’s speech at Harvard and can be found at: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/News/Speeches/speeches .

“Following normal website housekeeping, a new Speeches and Statements section has been created for the present administration with its new team of Ministers, and is part of the main navigation at http://www.scotland.gov.uk/news/speeches.“

To paraphrase Bruce Lee in the classic ‘Enter The Dragon’ that looks a lot like an attempt to practice the art of explaining without explaining, because the statement has absolutely nothing to say by way an explanation of the absence of the ‘Celtic Lion’ speech.

Now, you all know perfectly well that I’m not the kind of blogger who revels in mystery for the sake of mystery, so while all this was going on I started to do a bit more digging to see if I could track down the publication history of the speech and figure out why it was that it alone, of all the speeches that Salmond gave during his first term of office, failed to make it into the new archives with a working hyperlink.

Now. before we begin, it should be noted that if you check the bottom right-hand corner of the newly reinstated speech then you’ll see the legend ‘Page Updated: Monday, May 23, 2011’ – and if you check any of the other archived speeches you’ll see the same message in the same place. so we can reasonably infer that the 23rd Mary 2011 is the date on which this archive was created and loaded with the speeches from the previous minority administration.

Bearing that in mind, my first port of call was Google’s cache to check the main archive page to see how long it might have contained the broken link that I’d found earlier in the day. With the help of Freezepage, I can therefore confirm that the broken link was in place at least as early as 8 June 2011, as this is the most recent date on which the main archive page was cached, and the link is definitely the same broken link I noted earlier.

During the afternoon, I got a tweet from David suggesting that I take a look at the Scottish Government site’s own internal search which contained only two references to the title of the speech – one dating to 2008 and the other to 2009, but absolutely no direct link whatsoever to the full text of the speech. To be fair here, I’ve run segments of text from a couple of other archived speeches through the site’s own search facility and these searches failed to produce the desired results, i.e. a direct link to the speech, so it looks very much as if either the search engine is faulty or the site is configured not to allow searches on the archived speeches from the site’s home page, which is far from ideal.

Searches in Google for any of the three possible URLs under which the speech may have been published over the last three years were also rather less than fruitful.

For the exact URL on which the speech now appears, Google said ‘No’.

For the exact URL containing the reference to ‘This-Week’, all that turns up is a single reference to that URL appearing in comments under a blog post at Tom Harris’s website. Tom’s post is dated 20 January 2009 and the comment, by Scott, was posted on 21 January 2009 and now leads to a 404 error page.

I tried one further URL, following the main navigation format cited by Donna Rafferty in the statement which makes the accusation that David and, by extension, Love and Garbage have posted ‘misleading’ information. That search also turned up nothing but, in an effort to salvage something from a bad job, Google did turn up all of three links which give indirect references to the original ‘This-Week’ URL from which it would appear that what was, at one point, available on the Scottish Government’s website was a preview of Salmond’s ‘Celtic Lion’ speech.

Last, and by no means least, I ran part of the title of the speech – “Creating the Celtic Lion economy” – through Google’s site search facility and, again, this turns up a mere three references to the speech, two of which appear to relate to the original press release issued in March 2008, but nothing whatsoever to take anyone directly to the text of the speech.

Assuming that Scott, who commented on Tom Harris’s blog, had a live link at the time he posted his link, the most recent date on which its possible to verify that the ‘Celtic Lion’ speech actually appeared on the Scottish Government website is 21 January 2009 – although the Scottish National Party has been nothing like as reticent in regards to Salmond’s fulsome if – with hindsight – misplaced comments on the Icelandic and Irish economies as the full text of the speech as been on display on their website since it was given in March 2008, along with a full itinerary for his US visit posted the day after the speech.

So what can we conclude here?

Only that, for whatever reason, it has been impossible for anyone to locate a copy of the text of Salmond’s ‘Celtic Lion’ speech on the Scottish Government’s own website since – at least – the creation of the archive on 23rd May.Without a working hyperlink on the main archive page, the page containing the speech might just as easily have not existed at all until yesterday afternoon for all that would have made any difference to visitor looking for the text of the speech and although it does appear that the speech was moved to the archive on 23 May, along with the rest of the speeches, it quite easily have spent the last month sitting in draft in the back-end of site.

It makes no difference whatsoever – even if the speech was ‘live’ in terms of it having been published from the back-end, it could only have been found by someone who already knew the precise URL to which it had been published right up until the point at which the hyperlink in the main archive page was quietly fixed; after its apparent absence had been noted by Love and Garbage and queried by David Allen Green. Staff in the press office may not have noticed that the archive page now says ‘Page Updated Monday, June 27, 2011’ in the bottom right-hand corner but the little thing matter to us techies/bloggers – such as the fact that the cached version of the same page shows an update date of May 23, 2011 is the same location.

As for the two years plus between the posting of a link on Tom Harris’s blog and the creation of the new archive, who knows for sure. I expect that is was there all through that period but it is nevertheless a little disconcerting to find that that Google’s search engine was unable to directly index the page and that Wayback Machine managed to grab a copy of the speech only once – in October 2008. But for the home page, everything that Wayback Machine attempted to capture after that date was hopelessly mangled when the Scottish Government went over to an ASP-driven website the coding of which seems to have left much to be desired when it comes to search engine optimisation and accessibility.

UPDATE 11:08 BST – Just in via Twitter, Love and Garbage has remembered that he posted a link to Salmond’s Celtic Lion speech in November last year, which adds further weight to the suggestion that a screw up occurred when the speech was shifted to the archive in May this year which wasn’t noticed until yesterday due to the site’s extremely poor SEO.

In querying the somewhat mystifying absence of such a notable political speech – well, notable for its rhetorical flourish if not, with hindsight, for its assessment of the merits of certain national economies – neither Love and Garbage nor David can reasonably be said to have misled anyone. Both have done nothing much more than note its apparent absence and query whether there is any reasonable explanation for its having seemingly joined the ranks of the disappeared.

Had David’s query been handled by Salmond’s press office with a modicum of courtesy and civility, this whole episode would have amounted to not much more than a minor curio. In essences, if there can be said to be a story here then its one entirely of their own making and it resides squarely in the abrasive and, to say the least, rather paranoid response he received for merely having the temerity to contact the First Minister’s Press Office and enquire as to the whereabouts of a specific speech.

As I understand that Alex Salmond is something of a fan of Star Trek, I think it only right that I offer him the following pictorial evaluation of his press office’s handling of this matter…

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