• Released yesterday: the best man’s video
• Is it too a marketable commodity?
• Denials all round about the police tapes
• So who’s not telling the truth?
Press Gangs (3): Kenneth Roy
Unknown to the public, there exists a remarkably close relationship between the Crown Office, the police and the media, including the release – the authorised release – of material relating to criminal trials, documents that once would have been considered sacrosanct. So, before we turn to the urgent business of unauthorised releases, let’s look at the stuff going out to the media which is completely above-board.
Here is a list from the Crown Office dated 22 December – the day the jury retired to consider its verdict in the Sheridan trial – of what it was officially making available:
1. Barbara Scott’s hand-written notes from 9 November 2004 meeting
2. Typed draft minute of 9 November 2004 meeting
3. Photo of Tommy Sheridan at his wedding with Andy McFarlane, Gary Clark, Keith Baldassara and others
4. Photo of diary entries for week of 27 September 2002, including an entry for a ‘People’s Festival’
In addition, DVD copies of the George McNeilage video – in which someone believed by the jury to have been Tommy Sheridan is heard confessing to his best man – was made available for collection from Lothian and Borders Police as recently as yesterday.
Is this co-operation open to abuse? In particular, is the release of DVD copies of a sensational video not making the video, potentially at least, a marketable commodity? These questions should be publicly discussed. But since most people in Scotland are unaware of the practice – the supposed guardians of our freedoms, the media, having omitted to inform them – there has been no opportunity for such a discussion.
What we have been discussing this week, however, is not the authorised release of documents after all the evidence in a serious criminal trial has been heard, dubious as this practice is, but the unauthorised release of material before the trial or while the trial is in progress.
What does all this say about standards in Scottish public life? After a trial in which the central issue was the criminal dishonesty of one of the two accused, it tells us that probity in this case was more generally wanting.
Three parties – and three parties only – had access to the police tapes of interviews with Mr and Mrs Sheridan, which were shown in the BBC Scotland programme, ‘The Rise and Lies of Tommy Sheridan’ on 23 December, the night of Mr Sheridan’s conviction.
Since Wednesday, when we began putting questions about the source of this material, a senior Scottish journalist working on our behalf has asked all three parties to confirm or deny that they released the tapes to the BBC.
Lothian and Borders Police has denied doing so.
The Crown Office has denied doing so.
The defence has denied doing so.
The last denial should be emphasised. Among the volume of correspondence we have received on this subject in the last 48 hours, some readers have pointed to the defence as a likely source. In these circumstances, we will quote what Mr Sheridan’s solicitor told SR yesterday:
It was disclosed during the trial that there had already been an investigation of the leaking of material to the media. The assistant chief constable advised the area procurator fiscal who asked Crown counsel to investigate. We questioned two police witnesses about that investigation. It didn’t seem to amount to very much and no action appears to have been taken. We had to sign all sorts of undertakings that we wouldn’t allow the DVDs out of our possession. It seems different standards apply to others.
In addition to the three main parties, there is of course a fourth: the user of the tapes. BBC Scotland has declined to identity the source of what is being euphemistically called ‘the leak’. BBC Scotland says only that it ‘obtained’ the tapes.
What does all this say about standards in Scottish public life? After a trial in which the central issue was the criminal dishonesty of one of the two accused, it tells us that probity in this case was more generally wanting. Since there was no official release of the tapes, it follows that their release to the BBC was not only unauthorised but unethical and possibly illegal. BBC Scotland, the public service broadcaster, then used material which had been obtained in this way.
The date of BBC Scotland’s acquisition of the tapes is relevant. Was it before or after the jury heard testimony based on the tapes? More precisely, was it before or after the testimony of a police officer who, during the taped interview with Mrs Sheridan, accused her of adopting the techniques of IRA terrorists by maintaining her legal right to silence and who then removed her rosary? If the tapes were acquired before this testimony was heard in court, then BBC Scotland employees must have been aware of it – and seen the evidence with their own eyes – before it was presented to the jury.
What guidelines cover the release of information and documents by (a) the police (b) the Crown and (c) the courts to the press or public in connection with criminal prosecutions?
SR is no longer alone in pursuing these questions. Prompted by our revelations, the Liberal Democrats’ Robert Brown has tabled three questions in the Scottish parliament. Mr Brown’s intervention carries considerable authority: not only is he the party’s justice spokesperson; he is also a lawyer.
These are Mr Brown’s parliamentary questions:
1. What guidelines cover the release of information and documents by (a) the police (b) the Crown and (c) the courts to the press or public in connection with criminal prosecutions?
2. What documents, if any, were released by the police or the Crown or the court to the press or public in connection with the recently concluded prosecution in the case of HMA v Tommy and Gail Sheridan?
3. Whether the DVD recordings of interviews under caution with Tommy and Gail Sheridan by police officers of Lothian and Borders Police were officially released to the media, particularly to the BBC, and if not, what action has been taken with regard to the use of this material in the BBC programme, ‘The Rise and Lies of Tommy Sheridan’, broadcast on BBC1 Scotland on 23rd December 2010?
We understand that Mr Brown intends to write personally to the Lord President, the Lord Advocate, the chief constable of Lothian and Borders Police and the director of BBC Scotland.
We applaud these initiatives.
This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.