Wark and McConnell's New Year break turns into holiday from hell

Scotland's first Minister, Jack McConnell, came under increasing pressure yesterday to make a personal statement to the Holyrood Parliament about his friendship with the BBC broadcaster Kirsty Wark.

Opposition parties have called into question the Scottish Labour leader's judgement in failing to declare a holiday he and his family spent with the presenter's family at her villa in Majorca - and Ms Wark's impartiality as a journalist.

The relationship between the families has become a hot political topic after they all spent New Year at Ms Wark's holiday home - the second time in the past two years that they have holidayed together.

Mr McConnell has been criticised for not declaring his previous holiday under parliament rules that state overseas visits where costs are not "wholly met" by an MSP must be declared and, where a member receives a gift or benefit of any kind worth more than £250, that should also be declared.

"The public would assume a free stay at a Spanish villa is a gift worth more than £250," said the Tory leader, David McLetchie. "Consequently, it should be declared within 30 days in Jack McConnell's register of interests.

"He needs to explain why this previous holiday was not declared, since even if there was any ambiguity then he should either have declared it anyway for the avoidance of doubt, or sought advice from Parliament."

The Tories have questioned the close relationship between the minister and Ms Wark,who is one of the wealthiest media figures in Britain and a partner in the production company Wark Clements, which she runs with her husband.

Tories have cited as an example of their concerns the First Minister's reaction last year to requests for the BBC to hand over to the Fraser inquiry into the building of the Scottish Parliament interviews shot by Ms Wark's production company for a documentary into the affair.

The Gathering Place, which is to be screened by the BBC later this year, contains footage of both the late first minister Donald Dewar and the architect Enric Miralles regarding the project, which cost more than 10 times its original estimate.

Despite requests by Lord Fraser, who was appointed to investigate the rising costs of the building, to see the tapes, the BBC refused to hand them over.

Yesterday the Tories questioned Mr McConnell's failure to use the full powers of Parliament to compel the BBC to co-operate.

"Mr McConnell said he would do everything he could to help the inquiry uncover the facts, but then he led the opposition to our moves to make the taped interviews available," said a party spokesman.

"Mr McConnell was asked to choose between the public interest and Kirsty Wark. Maybe the public now knows why he chose the latter."

Yesterday, the shadow Culture Minister, Michael Matheson, lodged a parliamentary question requesting details of any correspondence between the First Minister and Wark Clements as he called into question Ms Wark's impartiality.

Ms Wark, 49, a senior Newsnight presenter, has anchored the BBC's election coverage in Scotland since 1987.

"I would question whether Kirsty Wark can be viewed as politically neutral," said Mr Matheson. "I would hope the BBC would recognise that and take appropriate action to make sure that whoever is anchoring their election night broadcast is seen as politically neutral."

Ms Wark dismissed as absurd suggestions that her friendship with Mr McConnell, which dates back almost 20 years, could interfere with her ability to do her job in a fair and objective manner.

Mr McConnell denied he had done anything wrong or that Ms Wark's professionalism had been compromised:"What we have is one family with a son and a daughter staying with another family with a son and a daughter in their house - family friends for nearly 20 years... I think it would be a very, very sad day if politicians or broadcasters dropped their friends, dropped families that they were closely associated with just because of their positions."

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