The ministry of truth: Part 1
by Kenneth Roy
You may be familiar with Gordon Bennett, the Scottish-born newspaper editor, founder of the New York Herald, whose life was so outrageous that his name entered the language. When upstanding citizens heard of some unlikely scandal or stunt, they would utter one of the usual expletives or, wishing to be polite, they might content themselves with the exclamatory ‘So help me, Gordon Bennett!’ I fear the same is happening with the name Tommy Sheridan. It too may be heading for the dictionary of slang.
It is with some trepidation that I even commit the words to screen. Every time I do, there is another outburst, some new expression of bilious disapproval. I have been accused of being an ‘ardent supporter’. Last week I received an email informing me that I had a ‘blind spot’ about him. A kindly man in Edinburgh said that the Scottish Review should cease to be concerned with this ‘unsavoury affair’. And so it goes on.
The most extreme idea is the anonymous claim that I am an embittered ex-BBC man pursuing a personal vendetta against Ken MacQuarrie, the director of Beebicus Scotticus, over my criticisms of the now notorious documentary, ‘The Rise and Lies of Tommy Sheridan’. ‘Full of salacious innuendo, tabloid-style finger-wagging and plastic drama’ is how the Sunday Herald’s Alan Taylor described the programme. Since, unlike myself, the well-known literary critic has not actually worked for the BBC, he must be embittered about something else; not sure what.
I have never met Mr MacQuarrie and know next to nothing about him. I believe he speaks Gaelic; the newspapers claim that he likes taxis; that’s about it. I left the BBC’s payroll in 1978, when I was still young, so that I could start enjoying life. I have, as they say, never looked back. It is, however, the more reasonable missives – the ones not composed in green ink – that are more baffling. For, in truth, I cannot find much to justify my unlooked-for status as the prisoner’s best pal.
I know Tommy Sheridan a little better than I know Ken MacQuarrie. I have met him once, very briefly. It was at Jimmy Reid’s funeral when he was on bail awaiting trial. I should have met him some years before, when he had agreed to address a meeting which I was chairing. He didn’t show up, failed to let us know that he wasn’t showing up and, when we complained about his non-attendance, failed to respond. I haven’t gone around conducting a personal vendetta against Tommy Sheridan for ruining my conference. I did, however, issue a number of imprecations at the time and Gordon Bennett wasn’t one of them.
Tony Benn, who really was an ardent supporter of the prisoner, and may be even now, used to disdain discussion of politics in terms of personalities and would insist on talking instead about ‘the ishoos’.
In short: you may take it that Tommy Sheridan has done nothing to earn my support, ardent or otherwise, and that, although my eyesight is not what it was, I have no blind spots yet. For ardent support, we must turn to the trial judge, Lord Bracadale, who referred in glowing terms to his contribution to the social and political history of modern Scotland. I wouldn’t have gone quite that far, but you would have to be hard-hearted, or just very Scottish, to deny Tommy Sheridan’s contribution to public life.
Tony Benn, who really was an ardent supporter of the prisoner, and may be even now, used to disdain discussion of politics in terms of personalities and would insist on talking instead about ‘the ishoos’. It seems that in Scotland it is difficult to talk about the ishoos without the personalities getting in the way. This ‘unsavoury affair’ is a sharp reminder that we live in a perilously small country in which, as George Chalmers pointed out in a recent SR, most people who have never met him feel they know Tommy Sheridan although, as in my case, he is just a no-show in their lives.
‘Ah kent his faither’ is still the most lowering self-description of the Scots. It applies to Tommy Sheridan and, in the Gaelic-speaking community, I have no doubt that it applies to Ken MacQuarrie too.
Is anyone still interested in the unresolved ishoos of this case and their wider implications? I begin to doubt it.
There are three.
The first is whether the prisoner got a fair trial or whether the media coverage was so prejudicial, particularly in its early stages, that it might easily have swung a jury almost evenly divided. Robert Black QC, emeritus professor of Scots law at Edinburgh University, believes that the coverage was prejudicial: he said so in Glasgow two weeks ago in my company. Is Bob Black to be written off as someone else with a blind spot? What has he got to be embittered about?
There were honourable exceptions to the loaded reporting of the case. The Guardian took a more balanced view, not only of the trial but of the nature of the politics around it. There was James Doleman’s admirable blog, already praised here. But neither the Guardian nor the Daily Doleman is a big seller in these parts; impressions were formed mostly elsewhere.
The second is the ethical question of whether BBC Scotland should have broadcast police tapes of interviews with the two accused which had been ‘obtained’ from a person or persons whose identity it refuses to divulge – hiding behind, as Alan Taylor puts it, ‘that old chestnut of protecting sources’. You do not require to be conducting a personal vendetta against Mr MacQuarrie to believe that the appropriation and use of this material was morally, perhaps criminally, wrong and that it should be investigated.
The third is the lack of principle behind the BBC’s decision to broadcast the tapes of the interview with Gail Sheridan, in which her rosary beads were taken from her and she was asked if she had been trained in the techniques of the Provisional IRA, when all she was doing was exercising her right to remain silent. All charges against her had been dropped a week before the broadcast. She was an innocent citizen. But the tapes were used anyway – without her permission. Should this practice be legally permissible? Should it not be a criminal offence?
For anyone who cares about the fairness of the justice system or the standards of broadcasting, these ought to be serious questions. They have formed the essential content of all that SR has brought to the public notice since the autumn of last year. But somehow they have been obscured by the personality of the prisoner in D hall: the intense dislike he inspires seems to have clouded rational judgement. So help me Gordon Bennett, I have never known anything like it.
This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.
Image by Bob Smith – View Bob’s work at http://bobsmithart.com