The two trials of Tommy


Kenneth Roy

In what has been described as ‘the trial of the decade’ – or should that be the century? – the former socialist MSP Tommy Sheridan and his wife Gail are accused of perjury. I should not be surprised by the coverage of this event in the mainstream media. Yet, somehow I am, just a bit.      When I was scarcely more than a boy, the High Court in Glasgow, where the Sheridans’ trial is taking place, was my main place of work for 18 months. Murder, rape and incest: these were my daily diet. The Glasgow Herald, as it was called then, sent me there because I had a better shorthand note than anyone else in the office. How I came to curse the name Pitman.
     All young journalists were taught the same inviolable rule about court reporting. You reported what you heard straight and without embellishment. It didn’t matter which paper you worked for: deadpan impartiality was the name of this highly specialised game. In a curious way the flat prose of the court report tended to make lurid testimony more lurid still: the barbarity of what one human being was capable of inflicting on another in Glasgow in the late 1960s spoke all too plainly for itself. But stylistic convention was not the reason for the code of strict neutrality to which all of us were bound. Newspapers were rightly terrified of the consequences of prejudicing the outcome of a trial. ‘Contempt of court’ were words to be dreaded.
     After it was over, the self-denying monks who had reported the trial suddenly became rampaging libertines. In the event of acquittal, chequebooks were brandished on the steps of the courthouse as newspapers competed with each other to sign up the victorious accused. If, however, as more often happened, the accused was in no position to accept a generous offer from the Scottish Daily Express, having just been bundled downstairs to the cells from the trapdoor in the dock, a version of his life was printed anyway, free of charge, complete with character references.
     Although much has changed since these exciting days, including the balance-sheets of newspapers, I imagined until the Sheridan trial that the basic ground-rules were still more or less in place. It seems I could be wrong about this.

In a case based on what was said or not said, done or not done years ago, which is the true version of what happened for a few moments as recently as last Friday?

      First there is the issue of accuracy.
     In the reporters’ room under the court, it used to be a late-afternoon ritual, even among rivals, to compare shorthand notes on the juiciest evidence so that, when our stories appeared the following morning, there was a consensus about what had actually been said. This was a case of safety in numbers, of course; but it was also a genuine attempt to get it right.
     Where it the late-afternoon ritual now?
     Here are two versions of what a prosecution witness called Carolyn Leckie said last Friday in her evidence:
     I think it’s absolutely disgusting that Tommy has dragged Gail through this. (Daily Record)
     I think it is absolutely disgusting that Tommy is making Gail sit through this. (The Herald)
     Dragging Gail through it or simply making her sit through it? There is a difference of degree here, though the ‘absolutely disgusting’ reference is common to both.
     Now consider this alternative version in the Daily Telegraph:
     In a direct attack on Mr Sheridan from the witness box, she said: ‘It is disgusting you have made your wife sit through this.’
     In this version, the adverb has gone. The co-accused’s alleged conduct is no longer ‘absolutely’ disgusting; just disgusting. Observe too how ‘Gail’ has been replaced by the less intimate ‘your wife’. But the most remarkable difference in the Telegraph’s account is the claim that Ms Leckie launched a ‘direct attack’ from the witness box: that, apparently unchalleged, she addressed Mr Sheridan as ‘you’.
     In a case based on what was said or not said, done or not done years ago, which is the true version of what happened for a few moments as recently as last Friday? I can’t tell you: I wasn’t there. But isn’t it pretty astonishing that three journalists should independently have heard different versions of the same brief testimony? Isn’t it odd that they listened to the same sentence – 12 words in the first version, 14 in the second, 11 in the third – and yet couldn’t agree exactly what was said or how it was said? In the search for what Carolyn Leckie did or didn’t say, could there be yet more versions?
     As it happens, there could. Across the front page of Saturday’s Sun were splashed the sensational words: How Could You Do This to Gail? Perhaps this was intended not so much as a faithful transcription of what was said as a rough paraphrase of all the other versions, tarted up for the attention-grabbing purposes of a headline. But the baldness of the statement is striking. Quotation marks around these words would have made it clear to the reader racing past the news-stand that this was not the newspaper’s position, but the opinion of a witness. There were no quotation marks.

As long as the reporting of the ‘trial of the decade’ remains as excitable as it is at the moment, there is always a risk that two trials will be taking place in Glasgow this autumn.

      It is at this point that the parallel issue of fairness arises.
     Here, the tabloids aren’t always the worst offenders. The tone of the coverage was set early by the Scotsman, of all papers, when it reported the first day’s proceedings in colourful terms, including a statement by its correspondent that the jury had heard a series of damning allegations against Mr Sheridan.
     Damning indeed. Well – in whose opinion? The jury is the master of the facts in this as in every criminal case and the jury won’t be discussing a single scrap of evidence for many weeks. So I guess – there can be no other reasonable explanation – that this is the paper’s own opinion of these allegations. As I stared disbelievingly at the Scotsman’s use of the word I could sense the shade of one of my old editors – perhaps the kindly John Ritchie, Murray’s dad – hovering over me with a pencil and an admonition. ‘We don’t comment on the evidence,’ he was saying as he struck out the offending adjective. ‘Our job is to report the facts.’
     My shorthand note has disintegrated, and such fastidious journalists as John Ritchie are long dead. Yet, the more I read of the Sheridan trial, the more I long for a return to the more passive court reporting of old, when readers were allowed to draw their own conclusions about the evidence. As long as the reporting of the ‘trial of the decade’ remains as excitable as it is at the moment, there is always a risk that two trials will be taking place in Glasgow this autumn – one arranged by the Crown Office, the other by the Greek chorus of the Scottish media.{jcomments off}

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Mr Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.

Comments have been disabled on this article due to the ongoing court proceedings.