Book Review: Gregor Gall, Tommy Sheridan – From Hero to Zero? Welsh Academic Press, 376 pps, £25, By Charlie CookLeave a comment
06/08/2014 by socialistfight
Tommy Sheridan and his wife Gail on his conviction at the perjury trial.
Then it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Tommy, ‘ow’s yer soul?’
But it’s ‘Thin red line of ‘eroes’ when the drums begin to roll …
An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints;
Rudyard Kipling, Barrack Room Ballads
If ever ‘a little local difficulty’ on the left spun out of control, it was the Tommy Sheridan affair. Insiders had spotted signs of trouble back in 2001; Operation Rubicon 1 suggests it’ll rumble for a while yet. Debate on it typically resembles a football supporters blog without the wit, leaving many observers poorly informed.
Gregor Gall is Professor of Industrial Relations at Hertfordshire University and a recognised commentator on Scottish affairs: it is reasonable to expect his book to offer competent analysis. Sadly, it doesn’t. Though it impressed some in the chattering classes, it recycles the self-serving and partisan Good vs. Evil theme already peddled by comrades. 2
Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, all accept that Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) members brought a touch of colour to Scottish politics by defeating Thatcher over the poll tax, standing up for little people and campaigning for MSPs to bring what many hoped would be humanity to Holyrood. 3
But, the theme runs, all was lost That Night in 2004 when The News of the World broke its Sheridan sex sleaze story. The yarn had everything: a tanned, caddish lothario, southern swingers clubs, crowd-in-a-bed-romps, a sultry screw-and-tell scribe, nobbled witnesses and Wronged Women. 4
More serious were later claims that Sheridan had had an affair with SSP member Fiona McGuire, a former call-girl with drug-abuse problems who’d attempted suicide as a result of stress associated with the revelations. 5 Sheridan insisted he’d never met her. Shortly after, apparently in an effort to prevent the paper from hounding McGuire, SSP organiser Duncan Rowan told it of an affair between Sheridan and another SSP member, Katrine Trolle. Breaching confidence, the paper ran the story.
Aghast, SSP tops summoned Tommy (it’s always ‘Tommy’) to the Executive Committee. 6 An electrically-charged meeting heard him confess not all but enough. Discussion followed, Sheridan left; given time to reflect, it was clear the swine was determined to sue. The ‘fess story quickly leaked to the press and was duly published; the EC immediately (events forced our hand . . . ) announced that yesterday’s hero had been ‘taken of his buttons’ – he’d quit as convenor.
Predictably, the SSP split. Former colleagues, oh so-o-o-o reluctantly but the law’s the law you know, flocked to tell The Truth at two trials. The first (2006) heard Sheridan’s libel action against News Group Newspapers with current and former SSP members appearing for Murdoch. The second (2010) tried Sheridan for perjury with much the same people saying much the same things for the Crown.
Both trials saw showboating from both sides, starting with former Sheridan china Alan McCombes in melodramatic ‘I’m Spartacus’ moments at the libel trial. He refused to hand the court the minutes of the key committee meeting; the court handed him twelve days for contempt and the promise of more. Happily for all, the ‘secret’ minutes were leaked to the press; a face-saving retreat followed. The court then heard SSP members sing in unison of how they loved The Truth, how Sheridan was A Liar and how The News of the World was spot on.
After Sheridan (justifiably) sacked his brief, few gave him a prayer but the jury found for him seven to four regardless.7 The beak awarded him £200K and, nobody’s fool, suggested that people had lied.
He had a point. Anyone assuming that witnesses the jury had not believed would be scrutinised first had forgotten that Murdoch was at his zenith and that the SSP, though theoretically impoverished, was ambitious and media-savvy.
The briefs had barely hung up their gowns when Barbara Scott, at the time parliamentary assistant to two SSP MSPs, summoned a press pack for escort and two MSPs for company and power dressed round to the rozzers to present The Evidence. 8 As a trial report later noted:
. . . three or so days after Tommy Sheridan’s victory in the libel trial, Scott] took the original notes to Fettes Police station in Edinburgh and told the police she had evidence that a crime, i.e. perjury, had been committed by Mr Sheridan. She did this, she claims, to ‘clear her name’ and, when asked, confirmed that she was accompanied to the police station by then MSPs Carolyn Leckie and Rosie Kane.9
The probe took two years: McPlod spent an impressive 52,000 hours turning Tommygate over good and proper no expense spared, News International lodged an appeal and paid potential witnesses aplenty amid rumours of the Digger lobbying to ensure No Slacking.
Andy Coulson was detained by police investigating allegations of perjury at Tommy Sheridan’s trial – he is now going on trial for perjury at that trial.
In December 2007, Sheridan was charged with one offence of suborning and nineteen of perjury. 10 His wife, Gail, faced seven perjury charges. The trial began in October 2010.
- Eleven SSP EC members testified that Sheridan had ‘confessed’ at the EC as minuted but four insisted that no confession had been made. The jury had to decide who to believe.
- The prosecution made much of a 38-minute 11 video dated 2004 of Sheridan confessing all to former buddie George McNeilage who had apparently recorded him out of indignation at his conduct. In 2006, McNeilage sold the video to News of the World Scottish boss Bob Bird in a Keystone Cops escapade for, it is said, £200,000. Oddly, the tape did not show Sheridan’s face.
- Sex researcher Anvar Khan admitted that she’d lied exotically about her affair with Sheridan to boost sales of her book. 12
- Sheridan hauled in former Wapping suit Andy Coulson, who insisted that News of the World staff had not misbehaved.
At a late stage, the prosecution dropped most charges, including those relating to group hanky-panky at a Glasgow hotel; Gail was acquitted altogether and Sheridan of suborning. The jury eventually cleared him of lying about Anvar Khan but convicted him eight votes to six 13 on five other charges. He was sent down for three years.
The News of the World noted that ‘Today’s sentence also provides closure for the many witnesses who very bravely exposed their own lives to public scrutiny when they testified to Mr Sheridan’s guilt’.
Alan McCombes’s elaborate chokey drama had actually been a sham. The story, pertinent to any objective account of the trial, is not mentioned.
Gall’s is the second book on the affair by an SSP member. The first, Downfall by Alan McCombes, is perhaps the most partisan, badly-written polemic I’ve ever read. Much Greg Kettle, part William McGonagall and all Good vs. Evil, the language is so frenzied, the account so distorted that adjectives travel in pairs for safety; some points are shameful.14 The author seems profoundly disoriented politically.
Though Gall’s account argues essentially the same line in a similar tone, it is slightly more measured and, with over 1100 footnotes, has the appearance of scholarship. (Most cite sources but many recount tedious intra-left gossip, much of it snide.) Less impressive are its scant index – more anon – and poor editing. The text says ‘(see later)’ time and again, suggesting it went to press before cross references were entered. At twenty-five quid a pop, that’s shabby.
The first five chapters are a fair account of Sheridan’s rise, The Poll Tax Years, the formation of the SSP and The First Holyrood Tour. Gall explains that they were drafted during the good times in anticipation of a hagiographic biography.
They were, therefore, drafted before That Night. It is the account of what happened after That Night that is misleading. Space prevents one challenging every point but some must be examined.
The Case of the Fraught Executive
Gall’s outline of the November 2004 executive meeting accords with others but adds that:
As normal, this SSP EC meeting was minuted as per the SSP’s constitution of the party with no requests at the meeting from anyone (including Tommy) for this rule to be set aside.
It was indeed minuted (though the minute’s competence was disputed) but the ‘as normal’ bit may not be so true. A former SSP member told me that it was not EC practice to minute discussions:
The norm was for the minutes to provide scant details about what comrades said or proposed, noting only the decisions taken and who spoke. It meant you could not hold people to account politically.
It also explains the outrage that a meeting that was effectively a disciplinary hearing to sack the leader was minuted at all, let alone in such detail, that the minutes, despite being hotly disputed by participants with contrary recollections, were distributed widely and leaked to the press.
McCombes seems to support this claim when he writes that ‘[Scott] was not an elected member of the executive but attended the meeting specifically for the purpose of recording the minutes’ . 15
What cannot be disputed is that the meeting was ‘a disciplinary hearing to sack the leader’ – participants even voted on how to announce his resignation. Within hours, Sheridan had gone.
Every left-leaning political group has disciplinary procedures which, by tradition, provide for hearings conducted by members not on leadership bodies, written charges and due notice. Duplicity and purges are, of course, equally part of left tradition but some norms are generally observed.
It is not normal practice to remove long-standing leaders by leaking salacious gossip to media wolves to arm-twist ‘resignations’. That many were angry with Sheridan or that he may have merited dismissal is irrelevant. Any reasonable observer reading accounts of the meeting can conclude only that the ‘confession’ was obtained under duress. Proper procedure never came into it.
It is tempting to ask if the minutes were not taken in factional spirit for purposes (later served) other than routinely reporting to members. 16 The decision to record the discussion was foolish at best. Rights only matter when those who need to exercise them are prevented from doing so. It is odd that a professor of industrial relations writing eight years later still finds nothing amiss in a biography preoccupied with his subject’s morals and other people’s rights.
The Mystery of the Missing McGuire
The most serious allegation made That Night was that Sheridan had, in his affair with Fiona McGuire, exploited a vulnerable woman and driven her to attempt suicide. McCombes spreads his telling over several lurid pages but Gall barely mentions it. It matters because the story had been discredited. The jury decided that Sheridan had committed perjury in other evidence but it’s hard to discover from Gall’s book that the McGuire story was not even mentioned in the indictment. On the substantive issue of a coercive relationship, The News of the World had libelled Sheridan.
The Secretary Who Disappeared
However one judges Barbara Scott’s trip to Edinburgh’s finest, her role demands consideration in any serious account – there might have been no trial without it. I can find no mention of it in Gall’s book beyond the cryptic line: ‘a member of the public made a complaint of perjury on 5 August 2006’ even though the ‘member of the public’ was Ms Scott. 17
The Curious Affair of the Coy Affidavit
A key moment in the perjury trial was when Ms Kane was asked about a story that appeared in the Scottish Sunday Herald in May 2006 and if she had any knowledge of who the ‘senior SSP official’ was who had signed an affidavit laying the basis of that story. She said she had not known at the time but had found out ‘in the last two weeks’. On further questioning, she revealed the official in question was Alan McCombes. 18
In short, McCombes gave a sworn statement to a notorious hack three months before the libel trial; it didn’t spill the ‘confession’ but did say that the SSP would publish ‘as it chose’ unless Sheridan quit as convenor. Outsiders knew the outcome sought by leading members; the SSP rank-and-file didn’t. McCombes’s elaborate chokey drama had actually been a sham. The story, pertinent to any objective account of the trial, is not mentioned.
Some of Our Entries Are Missing
To return to shoddy indexing, it is frustrating that, though there are entries for peripheral figures such as Neil Kinnock, there are none for key players Fiona McGuire, Barbara Scott and Katrina Trolle. Omitting one name might be unfortunate, omitting two might just be careless but omitting three (and examining their owners’ roles perfunctorily) is a striking coincidence. Has Gall clumsily air-brushed events that clash with his ‘message’? Whatever, the record is distorted to the advantage of his party.
On Psychic Authors and Mawkish Juries
As noted, the prosecution dropped several charges. In a passage of magnificent nonsense, Gall argues that they had only ever been included as a negotiating ploy and that dropping them didn’t mean that Sheridan was innocent, only that the briefs lacked proof. 19 On the contrary, the trial summary suggests that the pertinent evidence didn’t withstand cross-examination.
Later, noting that the verdict was eight-to-six rather than unanimous, 20 he suggests that some jurors were minded to acquit not because they didn’t believe the evidence but out of political sympathy for the accused. He says the same of the libel jury.21 Both claims are mischievous and improper speculation.
The Professor Who Misunderstood
Though they are no secret on the left, the book offers no analysis of the political and social divisions that were the ultimate cause of the SSP’s implosion. Gall also seems unable to grasp that many, whatever they think of Sheridan, were appalled by SSP succour for News International.
Politicians with more libido than sense and more hubris than insight are commonplace. Parties of the left typically look to leadership committees, not nod-and-wink deals with press barons, to deal with personality issues. They rarely handle them well but few, if any, ever get into the mess the SSP did. It was pitifully out of its depth.
Gall’s core argument that Sheridan was the sole author of his downfall as justice took its course is disingenuous. 22 Suing The News of the World was indeed a serious misjudgement but SSP member Duncan Rowan gave the paper the Katrine Trolle story, the SSP EC secured its ‘confession’ by unsavoury means, an unknown SSP member leaked it to the press and a known SSP leader handed it to the court. SSP member George McNeilage made and sold the entrapment tape, SSP member Alan McCombes gave The Herald his secret affidavit and SSP member Barbara Scott went to the police. Over twenty SSP members testified for Digger and Crown alike. 23
In short, though many sought the conviction, SSP members secured it. They didn’t have to, they chose to. The pertinent question is why. With Diggerati now facing their own trials, the story needs to be told properly.
Gall doesn’t even begin.
1 A police probe into claims that News International’s Andy Coulson, Bob Bird and Douglas Wight lied at Sheridan’s trial. The three have since been charged.
2 Galls tells readers on page 342 that he is a member of the SSP.
3 The poll tax campaign had been led by members of the Militant tendency; the SSP was a later amalgam of disparate Trotskyist and social issue groups with ex-Militant members in prominent roles.
4 The story broke in The News of the World on 31 October 2004. Sheridan’s former companion Anvar Khan wrote Pretty Wild: The Most Honest Diary About Men, Women and Sex You’ll Ever Read. On 28 January 2011, The Sun alleged that ‘Tommy Sheridan’s lust-fuelled night at seedy Cupids swingers’ club included a NINE-IN-A-BED orgy . . . ‘. Many women were indeed abused during the events but opinions differ as to who abused whom.
5 When McGuire testified at the libel trial, the story included cocaine-fuelled, five-in-a-bed orgies. Long after it had been discredited, it emerged that the paper, which paid McGuire over £20,000, had also hacked her phone.
6 9 November 2004.
7 Scottish civil juries have 12 members, criminal juries 15. Both allow for majority verdicts.
8 Sadly, a video of the stunt has disappeared from YouTube.
9 http://sheridantrial.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/day-one-afternoon.html The blog’s daily summaries of the trial are universally accepted as a reliable record.
10 Suborning: inducing a witness to commit perjury.
11 Eighteen minutes had been deleted, reportedly on privacy grounds.
12 The Guardian, 29 October 2010.
13 One juror had been discharged.
14 McCombes argues that Sheridan’s supporters were ‘as susceptible to manipulation by a demagogic orator as the crowd at a Nuremburg rally’ (p 123) and that studying Sheridan had given him insight into ‘the psychology of tyranny’ (p 219), drawing parallels with Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin. That said, some loved the book. The Sunday Herald’s Tom Gordon blogged: ‘Although written by a modest man, the book has a savage turn of phrase and a wonderful repertoire of metaphors’. Indeed it does. For more perceptive analysis, see Ian Bell, The Scottish Review of Books, 7.3.
15 Downfall, p 136. Confusingly, he later claims that EC discussions were always minuted without saying who by. (He then describes an IRA Army Council secret cache of – minutes. It’s that sort of book.)
16 Alan Taylor noted in The Scottish Review of Books (7.1) that ‘Not the least of Tommy Sheridan’s difficulties was trying to explain to the jury in polite language how vicious and conspiratorial left-wing politics are. Most of us, when told that eleven people swear blind that someone said something in a meeting, would believe that they were telling the truth’.
17 Page 209 and footnote. Former Conservative MSP Brian Monteith also raised the issue with police. Ironically, Monteith’s own expulsion from Holyrood’s Tory group (for briefing the press against his party leader) followed accepted procedure.
19 Page 225, notes 136, 137. Gall does not comment on the judge’s decision to acquit Sheridan’s of suborning. Happily, the rants of minor academics are unlikely to undermine the presumption of innocence.
20 A hung jury (seven votes to seven) would have meant acquittal.
21 Pages 183 and 226 ff.
22 As William MacDougall commented on the libel trial in State of Nature, ‘Any seasoned media-watcher would see that the whole thing was quite obviously an elaborate tabloid stitch-up . . . but for the fact that witnesses for News International’s defence also included members of Sheridan’s own political party’.
23 Once charges were dropped, the minutes and the tape became, as a prosecutor said of the tape, the ‘solid foundation’ of its case.