Workers Hammer No. 213

Winter 2010-2011


Defend Tommy Sheridan!

At the end of the longest-running perjury trial in Scottish legal history, on 23 December 2010 prominent Scottish leftist Tommy Sheridan was found guilty of perjury. Outrageously he was told by the judge to expect a jail term when he returns for sentencing on 26 January. Sheridan’s crime? He successfully sued the viciously anti-working-class News of the World for defamation in 2006 and was awarded damages of £200,000, which gored the ox of the Murdoch empire and the Scottish establishment.

The News of the World (aptly referred to as the News of the Screws in the satirical magazine Private Eye) had published trademark sex scandal stories claiming that Sheridan — at the time a Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) for the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) — had had an affair with a former prostitute and visited a “swingers” club where he engaged in “drug-fuelled” orgies. Sheridan insisted the lurid tales were lies and the jury believed him. Indeed why on earth would anyone believe the News of the World? But Sheridan’s victory came as a shock to the newspaper owners and following a four-year investigation by the Lothian and Borders Police, Sheridan and his wife Gail were prosecuted — for alleged perjury during the defamation proceedings.

The perjury trial had all the hallmarks of a right-wing political vendetta by Murdoch’s press empire, the cops and the Scottish bourgeois legal establishment against a well known leftist politician who rose to prominence in the mass demonstrations that defeated Thatcher’s Poll Tax in 1989-90. It is unusual, to say the least, for a perjury prosecution to be launched against the winner of a defamation case. Evidence presented by the prosecution was so unreliable that all charges against Gail Sheridan were dropped, as were many of the charges against her husband. Prior to the trial, the Sheridans’ house was raided by police officers and the couple were subjected to police intimidation. A BBC One Scotland documentary titled “The Rise and Lies of Tommy Sheridan”, which was timed to air on the night the guilty verdict was announced, shows footage of the interrogation of Gail Sheridan in which a policeman suggests she has received training in interview techniques from the IRA (!) for exercising her right to silence.

The notion that anyone should have to defend themselves against Murdoch’s rags for lying is obscene. At the time of the Sheridan sex allegations, the News of the World was edited by Andy Coulson who was later forced to resign in the wake of a scandal over illegal phone hacking. The paper’s royal editor Clive Goodman and private detective Glenn Mulcaire were both jailed in 2007 for plotting to intercept voicemail messages of media celebrities and even members of the royal family. Coulson, who now has also been forced to resign as communications chief for Tory prime minister David Cameron, was centrally involved in the campaign to get Sheridan.

In statements condemning Sheridan’s conviction for perjury, the reformist left has predictably been fawning over the “working-class hero” Tommy Sheridan. Indeed, for these groups Sheridan’s SSP was once touted as a model “socialist” party. Both the SSP and Solidarity, Sheridan’s current outfit, are common-or-garden-variety reformist organisations seeking to cash in on the drop in support for the Labour Party in Scotland. In 2003, with the Labour Party widely despised over the invasion of Iraq, the SSP won six seats in the Scottish parliament. At the time when the News of the World ran its sex scandal story in 2004 Sheridan was a prominent public figure; the SSP he led was popular and had hopes of sharing power in Holyrood with the Scottish National Party, a bourgeois party. But deep divisions arose in the SSP over how far to capitulate to the SNP.

The News of the World sex scandal became part of the bitter power struggle inside the SSP, which ended in a split and Sheridan launching a rival party — Solidarity. Sheridan’s former comrades in the SSP played a central role in getting him convicted. SSP members testified against him at the defamation action, claiming that Sheridan had admitted in a party meeting that some of the newspaper’s allegations were true. In response Sheridan denounced them as “scabs”. At the perjury trial, out of 42 prosecution witnesses, 24 were SSP members, including 16 members of the original Executive Committee who gave evidence in 2006. The key piece of prosecution evidence was a videotape secretly filmed by Sheridan’s former friend, SSP member George McNeilage, who sold it to the News of the World for £200,000. The tape purports to show Sheridan confessing that he attended “swingers” clubs, but he is not clearly visible on the tape and claims it is a forgery.

It is in the interests of the working class to defend Tommy Sheridan against the Murdoch empire and to demand the dropping of all further action against him. During the 2006 defamation trial we said that “the scurrilous News of the World was trying to smear a leftist politician with a ‘sex scandal’ ”. At the same time, we mocked Sheridan’s defence of himself as a God-fearing upholder of bourgeois morality, saying: “Sheridan wants us all to believe he is a paragon of virtue who only ever has sex with his (adoring) wife, to whom he is devoted and who would drown him in the Clyde if he were unfaithful!” (Workers Hammer no 196, Autumn 2006). We Marxists regard consensual sex as a private matter. And we look forward to the day when the Murdoch empire and the rotten capitalist system of lies and slander that it upholds will be swept into the dustbin of history by a successful socialist revolution.