We know who leaked the tapes. It will come as a surprise


The ministry of truth: Part 2

by Kenneth Roy

As Tommy Sheridan was admitted to Barlinnie prison in Glasgow last month, the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) was at pains to assure the public that he would be treated ‘exactly the same as any other prisoner’. SPS used the word ‘egalitarian’ to describe the regime there. Just how egalitarian can be judged by subsequent events.

Within hours of his arrival, an SPS employee had appropriated the official mugshot of Mr Sheridan and sold/donated a copy to a tabloid newspaper, which promptly splashed it across its front page under the headline: ‘Tommy, The Inside Story’. Gone was the grimly defiant figure familiar from the trial. In its place there was the bleak vision of an unsmiling, exhausted, middle-aged man. Yet, in this moment of nemesis for its old enemy, the paper managed to append the caption: ‘As smarmy as ever’. That is precisely what the man in the mugshot was not.

I emailed the Scottish Prison Service and reminded it of the undertaking, not many days before, that Mr Sheridan would be treated ‘exactly the same as any other prisoner’. What, I asked, had happened to this promise? Why had it come to mean so little so quickly?

A few minutes later, the SPS press office fired back a terse response: ‘I can confirm that this is the subject of an investigation’. To paraphrase the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies, they would say that, wouldn’t they? I suggest that the investigation need not take very long; I am surprised that it had not been concluded, and the culprit disciplined or charged, before I got around to sending my email. The only remaining question of interest is why the prison governor was not more alert to the obvious possibility that the arrival of his new inmate would be cynically exploited, for commercial gain or otherwise.

I mention this seedy episode not only to illustrate the general hypocrisy of the state’s repeated assertions that personal data is safe in its hands, but to make the particular point in the Sheridan case that official protestations about the appropriation of tapes of police interviews, which were then broadcast by BBC Scotland, should be accompanied by a government health warning.

Actually, not a government health warning. For who in their right mind would, in such matters, believe a word the government said?

Following SR’s initial exposure of the ethical and legal issues around the BBC documentary, ‘The Rise and Lies of Tommy Sheridan’, the Liberal Democrats’ justice spokesperson, Robert Brown MSP, wrote to the lord president (Lord Hamilton), the lord advocate (Elish Angiolini) and the chief constable of Lothian and Borders Police (David Strang) in an attempt to discover the source of the ‘leaked’ material. Mr Brown, who deserves credit for his public service, has had replies from all three – or, rather, from their representatives on earth.

Oh, well, that’s Robert Brown told – in remarkably similar terms. But, other than being shrill and defensive, do these letters actually tell us anything of substance?

As an exercise in the use of official language, if for no other reason, these letters make interesting reading. The most courteous, as well as the most literate, is the one written on behalf of Lord Hamilton by the deputy principal clerk of justiciary. She explains in some detail the procedures for safeguarding productions in criminal trials (it seems they are kept in a safe at the court and may only be viewed by arrangement with the Scottish Court Service), and informs Robert Brown that, on the basis of her ‘detailed inquiries’ into the Sheridan leak, the productions in this case ‘were handled and stored in a secure manner’. Her letter ends with a statement of the need to protect the release of information restricted by legislation; she mentions specifically the Data Protection Act and the Contempt of Court Act.

The letter takes us no further – it is more than likely that the tapes were copied long before they reached the High Court safe – but we must be grateful for its measured and dispassionate concern, to say nothing of its regard for the meaning and dignity of words.

From the solicitor-general, Frank Mulholland, the man often tipped as Mrs Angiolini’s successor in May, and the assistant chief constable of Lothian and Borders Police, there has been a harsher response. Mr Brown is accused by the solicitor-general of ‘tending to undermine the integrity and professionalism’ of the Crown Office, while the assistant chief constable rebukes him for the ‘accusatory tone’ of his questions and likewise defends the ‘integrity and professionalism’ of his officers. Oh, well, that’s Robert Brown told – in remarkably similar terms. But, other than being shrill and defensive, do these letters actually tell us anything of substance? Here are one or two salient quotes.

On the behaviour of BBC Scotland:

Lothian and Borders Police: ‘I share your concerns that the tapes entered the public domain…The BBC has declined to offer any assistance in identifying the source of the material.’

Crown Office: ‘You are correct to assume that the Lord Advocate and I share your concerns over the transmission by the BBC of police interviews…Although Lothian and Borders Police have made investigations with the BBC, I understand that they have declined to identify the person or persons from whom they obtained the material…You have asked for my views on the acceptability of police interviews with suspects being leaked into the public domain. It goes without saying that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service would utterly condemn any such action.’

On the source of the leaked material:

Lothian and Borders Police: ‘Considerable efforts and robust processes to secure and manage both information and material through the course of the investigation offer a high level of assurance that the material was not passed to the BBC by the police.’

Crown Office: ‘Any suggestion that an official of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service may have facilitated a leak to the press is entirely without any factual support.’

The Sheridans’ solicitor calls the inference in the letters ‘pathetic’ and insists that Mr Sheridan did not have access to the tapes.

In the opinion of Steven Raeburn, editor of on-the-ball law magazine, The Firm, these ‘carefully worded’ assurances stop short of outright denial. Mr Raeburn has contacted Lothian and Borders Police to ask whether it wishes to refute formally that it was the source of the unauthorised leak. He asked the Crown Office the same question, but it ‘refused to engage’.

In both letters there is an inference that the defence was responsible. How credible is this theory? Although Tommy Sheridan ‘co-operated’ with the BBC (the word used by both the Crown Office and the police) to the extent of giving an interview, he withdrew all co-operation after the programme containing the leaked tapes was broadcast, and gave a pre-sentence interview to Scottish Television instead. The Sheridans’ solicitor calls the inference in the letters ‘pathetic’ and insists that Mr Sheridan did not have access to the tapes. The defence is calling for a criminal inquiry into the leak and has formally complained to the BBC, among others. Mrs Sheridan, meanwhile, has begun civil proceedings over the content and subsequent broadcast of the notorious ‘rosary beads’ interview with her.

So there we have it. Or there we don’t. I have reached a conclusion. No one leaked the tapes to BBC Scotland. All hands are clean. Everyone is innocent. Integrity and professionalism? You got it. So how did the tapes reach Pacific Quay? I know. It happened at Christmas. It was a miracle.

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

Image by Bob Smith – View Bob’s work at http://bobsmithart.com