There was a hero in the Sheridan case. Just the one.

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by Kenneth Roy

Who is James Doleman? The name meant nothing to me until last autumn, and I am still not sure of his identity. It could be a pseudonym. The surname has a certain bleak clang nicely attuned to our dispiriting times, and is prefaced by dour, solid James rather than any of your matey Jims or Jimmies. 
     I expect that, as I write this on a train early on Wednesday morning, James Doleman is already sharpening his pencil – yes, I see him with an old-fashioned pencil – in readiness for the final instalment in the case of Tommy Sheridan. He can be relied upon to record the denouement with the same sober detachment as he has recorded everything else in this tawdry affair.
      Not that Mr Doleman would ever permit himself to employ the word tawdry or indeed any other subjective adjective. While all around him are losing the heid as the ‘trial of the decade’ reaches its melodramatic conclusion in the Glasgow High Court, Mr Doleman – and Mr Doleman alone – will play it dead straight.
     Now here is a remarkable thing. The person of whom I speak has not
been covering the case for any newspaper or broadcasting organisation. He is not on the payroll of what we still call the ‘mainstream media’. Mr Doleman
is a lone wolf, a man who represents only himself and the greater cause of truth. He is a blogger.
     Bloggers have a bad name on the whole. Their contribution to English literacy is not outstanding. Many struggle with the rudiments of spelling and grammar. Bloggers are in a permanently bad mood, ill at ease with the world. They appear to be unfamiliar with, or impervious to, the law on defamation. Of course, I am being unfair. Some bloggers are actually quite sane. But only one man in my experience has elevated the humble blog to the status of an art form and his name is James Doleman.
     His daily despatches from the Sheridan trial were models of clarity,
fairness and concision. Scrupulously avoiding comment or embellishment, Mr
Doleman simply set down a precis of the evidence, allowing his readers to form their own judgements. Did I say simply? There is nothing simple about this particular skill – the craft of intelligent selection and coherent presentation of a mass of material gathered at speed. It is the skill of the old-fashioned reporter, a breed almost extinct.
     I am not alone in my admiration for Mr Doleman’s ability. Yesterday lunchtime in the Glasgow Concert Hall, the BBC’s Iain Anderson had the company of Robert Black QC and myself for a discussion of the Megrahi and Sheridan cases. Robert Black paid a handsome tribute to the Doleman blog, comparing it favourably with the loaded coverage of the trial in the newspapers, and went on to make a point of larger importance. He said that, unlike any of the newspapers, Doleman had devoted the same careful attention to the defence case as he had done to the prosecution evidence.


‘The press has a responsibility to report legal proceedings fairly and accurately,’ Professor Black told the audience in Glasgow. ‘They did not do so in this case.’


     Early in the trial, I wrote a piece for this magazine challenging the press coverage. I gave the example of a broadsheet paper which, reporting the first day’s proceedings, referred to ‘damning evidence’ against Tommy Sheridan. Whether the evidence was damning or not – wasn’t that rather up to the jury? In the end, the jury was almost evenly divided in its view. But any juror reading that newspaper would have been left in no doubt about its opinion
of the evidence.
     I understand that the SR editorial was read by the judge and that, at that stage, even prosecuting counsel expressed anxiety about the nature of some of the media coverage. But nothing of consequence was done: the blatant partiality continued. Robert Black (emeritus professor of Scots law at Edinburgh University, among other distinctions) noted yesterday what was obvious to any observer of the proceeedings – that when the prosecution closed, and the defence produced its first witness, the trial suddenly disappeared from most front pages.
     The only defence witness who crossed the media’s radar was a hostile one –  the prime minister’s director of communications. Inconveniently from the accused’s point of view, we were not to know that Mr Coulson would soon be out of a job because of his association with telephone tapping at the News of the World. Otherwise, the ordinary reader – by ordinary I mean someone not obsessing on the case – might have been unaware that some witnesses, admittedly a minority, strenuously disputed the prosecution’s version of events.
     ‘The press has a responsibility to report legal proceedings fairly and accurately,’ Professor Black told the audience in Glasgow. ‘They did not do so in this case.’
     So was the coverage actually prejudicial? I put the question squarely to Robert Black. His answer was an emphatic yes. He added that it was time for the courts to recognise the changing nature of media coverage of high-profile criminal trials and to discourage the flagrant abuses we saw in the Sheridan case before they set a new, historically low benchmark.
     But there was an honourable exception. In an odd way, the utter sobriety of James Doleman’s blow-by-blow account of each sitting, its deadpan style and steady pace, its faithful noting of adjournments and risings, made for much more compelling reading than the high-octane drivel elsewhere; unobtrusively, he drew his readers into the courtroom, making us feel we were with him.
     There is a lesson here for the traditional press as its circulations continue to plummet. I doubt, however, that it will be learned; standards have fallen too far for them ever to recover. But if there is still an award for the Scottish journalist of the year, I suggest that it should go to James Doleman. In the Sheridan case, the only hero was this recording angel.

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