The BBC, the police and Tommy Sheridan


Press Gangs (1): Kenneth Roy

Three weeks today, Tommy Sheridan will go to prison. Only the length of the sentence remains in doubt. A term of four or five years is widely predicted, in which case the former leader of the Scottish Socialist Party can expect to be released in January or July 2013. But the case looks far from over: Mr Sheridan continues to protest his innocence and says he is planning an appeal.
     During his trial, the Scottish media threw all caution to the wind with their overheated coverage. The extent, if any, to which the jury was influenced by the daily barrage of loaded headlines will never be known. Whatever one thinks of Mr Sheridan and his reckless stupidity, any accused person deserves fairer treatment than he received at the hands of his tormentors.
     The tabloids were not always the worst offenders; the malaise was fairly general. Throughout a trial in which the honesty of the central figure was the main issue, the media’s own ambiguous morality provided an ironical sub-text. But it was not until the trial concluded, and Mr Sheridan was unexpectedly allowed bail, that this ambiguity was exposed in its starkest form.
     On the night of the conviction, 23 December, BBC Scotland cleared the decks for a 60-minute television feature, ‘The Rise and Lies of Tommy Sheridan’. This was a remarkable act in itself: I cannot remember when BBC Scotland last scrapped its advertised peak-time schedule for a TV programme of such length and apparent ambition. Dunblane? Yet here was a media organisation not renowned in recent years for the vigour or boldness of its journalism suddenly finding airtime, lots of it, for an exposure of a politician who had never held a major political or public office.
     What did this act say to the Scottish people about the relative value, as the BBC sees it, of all those public issues of greater importance which it fails to report so generously? What was it trying to tell us about its own principles and priorities?
     A serious analysis of a highly unusual prosecution might almost have justified the enterprise, but it was clear from the outset that this was not the programme’s intention. Someone called the ‘investigations correspondent’ – a job title worthy of a Kafka novel – had pulled together a collection of short interviews with the weary cast of familiar characters from this long-running saga. It was not, however, their predictable recollections which gave the programme its sensational flavour, but the use of police tapes of interviews with Tommy Sheridan and his wife and co-accused, Gail.
     Within a few hours of the jury’s verdict, BBC Scotland was telling the world that it had ‘obtained’ the tapes and promising that they would give ‘not only a fascinating insight into how the pair react under intense police questioning, but also reveal fresh allegations about Sheridan’s sex life’. Someone was paid to write this salacious drivel in the name of public service broadcasting: the juvenile bravado of the venture was always shamelessly transparent, indeed positively boastful in tone.

Only now, in the bleak light of January, is it possible to revisit this shabby little episode in Scottish broadcasting history and to ask one or two unaddressed questions about it.

     At any other time of the year, the programme would have had more impact and immediate questions might have been asked about its motives, the judgement of those responsible for it, and the sourcing and use of the police tapes. But Christmas swiftly intervened: even the Sheridan scandal, and the BBC’s bizarre treatment of it, were not compelling enough to survive two weeks of disaster movies and turkey dinners. Only now, in the bleak light of January, is it possible to revisit this shabby little episode in Scottish broadcasting history and to ask one or two unaddressed questions about it.
     The most obvious question is how the BBC, to borrow its own euphemism, ‘obtained’ the tapes in the first place. To this there is an equally obvious answer. The euphemism should fool no one. No great skill was required on the part of the ‘investigations correspondent’ to secure the scoop. Someone employed by Lothian and Borders Police simply appropriated the tapes – without the authorisation of the chief constable, it is safe to assume – and gave them to the BBC knowing that they would be used. We should be clear, too, about the nature of the material appropriated and passed on. It was Crown evidence.
     Mr Sheridan consistently maintained that he had been the victim of a vendetta by Lothian and Borders Police. The jury, which reached its majority verdict with unimpressive speed, either rejected this theory or chose not to give much weight to it. It was, of course, unknown to the jury that, even as it deliberated, the police tapes were in the BBC’s hands, placed there by an employee of the same Lothian and Borders Police.
     As it happens, the evidence was generally supportive of Mr Sheridan’s defence. Despite the BBC’s hyperbole, there was no incriminating confession; quite the opposite. The tapes may therefore – who knows? – be relevant to any appeal. Yet long before that appeal is heard, even before the convicted man is sentenced, the integrity of Crown evidence has been compromised. There is, however, no word of the progress of disciplinary proceedings against the police employee (or employees) responsible for what is being described as a ‘leak’. Indeed there is no word that such proceedings are even taking place.
     Meanwhile, BBC Scotland has allowed its standards to reduce to the level of the tattiest tabloid. For this, its director, Ken MacQuarrie, should be held personally responsible.

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