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The Christmas Tree Files

A suitable topic for post-dinner discussion over the festive period?

Monday, December 18, 2023
5 mins

As an entire generation of Scots heads for old age waiting for Operation Branchform to release whatever it has discovered in the past two-plus years, we present a suitable topic for post-dinner discussion over the festive period.

Ever heard of the Christmas Tree Files?

If not, there’s plenty online about it. We’re sure that Grouse Beater (Gareth  Wardell, who has first-hand knowledge of the files, having seen his) wrote about it years ago but we are unable to locate the piece on his blog, and it seems that Iain MacWhirter has also penned thoughts: The Christmas Tree Files - Iain Macwhirter's Substack

The recent Court of Session showdown between the Scottish government and its own Information Commissioner over the continuing struggle to access material relating to ‘Branchform’ revolved around the legal interpretation of a single word: ‘hold’. 

Scotgov’s claim that it didn’t ‘hold’ material requested by Wings reader Benjamin Harrop  Wings Over Scotland | Huddle Formation was dismissed in perfunctory fashion and we still await the release of the information. The expectation is that Scotgov will comply but that there may be extensive redaction.

As Stuart Campbell wrote, ‘...the potential outcomes of this ruling include people we won’t name possibly being placed very firmly in an extremely uncomfortable position regarding seriously and inescapably criminal acts, with ramifications that we don’t think it even remotely an exaggeration to describe as “apocalyptic”.’ 

The whole episode reminded us of the Christmas Tree Files because this issue of ‘holding’ data, sensitive or otherwise, has become more important in line with Freedom of Information enforcement. 

No-one disputes that the so-called ‘Christmas Tree’ files existed. The system was designed to alert personnel management within the BBC as to potentially ‘troublesome’ individuals on the payroll (contracted or freelance) with suspect political affiliations or interests. It was, to be blunt, a form of blacklisting. 

The BBC claims to have ditched the system in the late 1980s. But what happened to the information which led to specific individuals having that ‘Christmas Tree’ stamped (literally) on their files? (Remember - these were actual paper files, kept in old-style cabinets - not a database.)

This is where the word ‘hold’ becomes important.

The BBC is known to have shared information concerning ‘people of interest’ with the Economic League, a right-wing organisation formed a century ago by business leaders who were paranoid about left-wingers. The following link provides examples of the type of thing they did. We don’t want to bore readers with exhaustive detail - again, there is plenty of material online and publications such as Lobster have been studying/exposing this stuff for decades. 

The Blacklist (spiesatwork.org.uk)

The Economic League was wound-up in 1993. So, what happened to the lists then?

Consulting Association - Wikipedia

We leave readers to decide whether or not they want to delve further into this particular rabbit-hole. 

It is impossible to know how many lives and careers have been wrecked simply because people, perhaps in their student years, or following the example of friends or family, joined political parties, attended demonstrations/marches or perhaps submitted a script to the BBC which appeared to have a ‘left-wing’ message. Being ‘named’ without even knowing it could also, of course, be the result of personal malice.

We are paranoid, yes, and with good reason. Having witnessed the treatment of people in the Scottish independence movement - Craig Murray, Stuart Campbell, Mark Hirst and, of course, Alex Salmond - there appears no logical reason to suppose that the targeting of individuals for nothing other than holding legitimate political views has diminished. 

The idea that the BBC abandoned the use of such material seems naive in the extreme. Perhaps they don’t ‘hold’ it, perhaps whoever succeeded the Economic League can say hand on heart, under oath, that they don’t ‘hold’ it. But we know that now, more than ever before, information is power.

‘The Christmas Tree Files’ may be a quirky topic to help fill awkward silences with the in-laws but the information those symbols alluded to has not vanished into thin air. Knowing what we do about the people in charge of broadcasting and business generally, it seems a safe bet that the information is still being ‘held’. We just don’t know where.

Operation Branchform - Wikipedia

Wings Over Scotland | The Great Beyond

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