Police tapes in Scotland have become a marketable commodity

34
1971

Press Gangs (2): Kenneth Roy

Yesterday’s SR editorial on the BBC Scotland programme, ‘The Rise and Lies of Tommy Sheridan’, prompted several immediate responses. At least one journalist asked Lothian and Borders Police to confirm or deny that it was responsible for leaking to the media the tapes of its own interviews with the two accused. He got a denial.
      Unfortunately this takes us no further forward. We were not suggesting that the tapes were given to the BBC in any authorised way; we were suggesting the opposite – that they were appropriated by someone working for the police without the knowledge of superiors.
     Other theories emerged during the day. It was suggested that the source of the leak might have been the Crown Office – although it too issued a flat denial to the same journalist. Another correspondent put forward the theory that it was the defence which gave the BBC a copy of the tapes, in the service of a programme dedicated to the public exposition of Mr Sheridan’s criminal dishonesty. Well, anything’s possible.


Of course, the director of BBC Scotland, Ken MacQuarrie, could put an end to the speculation by simply naming the source. Dream on, baby…


     It is an essential feature of the transaction that we cannot be sure. We cannot be sure because no one is owning up – for very good reasons, no doubt – and because the BBC has declined to name its source. But it was Lothian and Borders Police which recorded the interviews. It was Lothian and Borders Police which made the tapes. It was Lothian and Borders Police which instigated the investigation and pursued it with such zeal that one of the accused was moved to describe it as a vendetta. So, for the moment at least, we stick with our reasonable deduction that the tapes were handed over to BBC Scotland’s ‘investigations correspondent’ – the job title from Kafka – by someone from Lothian and Borders Police.
     Here is an undertaking – what Harold Wilson used to call a solemn binding one. If we receive a signed confession – one that a jury would be inclined to believe – we will publish it. And, if the BBC’s partner in the transaction turns out to our complete satisfaction not to have been someone employed by Lothian and Borders Police, we will publish a gracious retraction. Of course, the director of BBC Scotland, Ken MacQuarrie, could put an end to the speculation by simply naming the source. Dream on, baby…
     In a sense, however, the identity of the person or persons unknown is a side-issue. The substantive issue is what all this says about Scotland’s system of criminal justice.
     We have reached a few tentative conclusions.


There are no safeguards or sanctions in place to prevent CCTV tapes of police interviews being appropriated and passed on to the media.


     (1) The tapes of police interviews are now a marketable commodity. No one in Scotland can be wholly confident that, if he or she is ever interviewed by the police, a tape of the interview will not one day find its way into the hands of the media.
     
     (2) It is safe to assume that, in this case, no money changed hands. But not all press gangs are as scrupulous about these matters as the BBC. The precedent having been set, and no action having been taken against the practice, future such transactions may come with a price-tag attached.

     (3) As soon as the jury delivered its verdict on 23 December, the BBC began to promote its unscheduled hour-long programme, broadcast at 9pm the same day. It boasted of having ‘obtained’ the tapes and hinted that they would include sensational new revelations about Mr Sheridan’s sex life. All this suggests careful pre-planning. There is little doubt that the tapes were in the hands of BBC Scotland before the trial began or while the trial was in progress. So it is possible, putting it no higher, that the contents of the tapes were known to BBC employees before they were known to the jury.

     (4) The trial judge was unaware that material Crown evidence had been passed on to the media before or during the trial.

     (5) There are no safeguards or sanctions in place to prevent CCTV tapes of police interviews being appropriated and passed on to the media.

     If these tentative conclusions are broadly correct, we should ask ourselves whether Scotland’s system of criminal justice has not been corrupted by this sequence of events and whether there is not a risk to civil liberties in what has been tolerated.
     Specifically, is it morally right that police tapes should now be a marketable commodity? Would the Crown Office care to state plainly whether it regards the practice as acceptable and, if it does not, why it has not ordered an inquiry into the BBC’s acquisition of the Sheridan tapes?
     That leaves the separate though closely related issue of the BBC’s dubious ethics.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.