Why the Sheridan case may return to haunt Scottish justice

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Kenneth Roy

On 26 January, unless the unexpected happens, Tommy Sheridan will enter the Scottish prison system. On arrival, he will be taken to a cubicle known as the dog-box, where he will be stripped of all his clothes and possessions. He will then be required to walk naked along a narrow corridor to a room where he will be medically examined and fitted with a distinctive uniform for the convicted.
     After this procedure, he will be escorted to one of the prison’s Victorian halls and locked in a cell so tiny that, when I asked a group of young people to step into one such cell at Barlinnie, one after another, and experience the sensory sensation of confinement, they emerged pale with shock. The statistical probability is that Tommy Sheridan will share this cell with a semi-literate drifter with mental health problems. He will not have to slop out with his fellow inmate, this practice having been abolished in most prisons, including Barlinnie, but in other ways the condition of the prisoner has scarcely changed in a hundred years.
     This is the first thing to be said about Tommy Sheridan’s impending imprisonment. He will enter an institution so overcrowded, so hostile to any prospect of rehabilitation, that it makes a mockery of the present political will to reduce the prison population. As we learned earlier this week, the number in prison in Scotland has actually increased. The justice secretary says one thing; the judges do another.


Their vicious factionalism was an insult to the people, mainly of Glasgow and the west of Scotland, who voted for them and believed in them.


     The media – I really must stop calling them the ‘mainstream media’ since there is nothing mainstream about them, least of all their collapsing circulations – are already salivating over the humiliating fate of Tommy Sheridan. Their pages of salacious revelation will have been prepared weeks in advance. How inconvenient that Christmas has deprived them of the full impact, such as it was.
     We should ask next whether anyone emerges with dignity or credibility from the long proceedings at the High Court in Glasgow. The members of the jury gave up three months of their lives, not that they had much choice, and since they are the embodiment of a noble system of jurisdiction, their verdict should be respected. So must the humanity of the judge in deferring sentence for a month and continuing Mr Sheridan’s bail rather than remanding him in custody; as a result, a man convicted of a serious crime will share Christmas with his wife and young daughter.
     Who else?
     The Scottish Socialist Party, a popular movement at one time, in which so much faith was invested by so many, including people of intelligence and standing, emerged as a deplorable bunch. Their vicious factionalism was an insult to the people, mainly of Glasgow and the west of Scotland, who voted for them and believed in them.
     Most of the Crown’s witnesses appeared in the original civil action against the News of the World. There was a feeling of deja vu about the prosecution evidence, although the media managed somehow to present the stale dish as something new and exciting, if far from savoury. The one piece of significant new evidence – the tape of Mr Sheridan’s ‘confession’ – was not subjected by the Crown to an expert view of its authenticity or otherwise. There was no attempt at voice verification.
     Yet, for this ‘confession’, Mr Sheridan’s best man, one George McNeillage, was paid £200,000 by the News of the World – although not before the best man had demanded that the Scottish editor of that paper take all his clothes off. Mr Bird stopped just short: he kept his underpants on. The paper’s editor, Mr Coulson, now the director of communications in the prime minister’s office, came to Glasgow to view the tape; pronounced it good; had lunch; left; the cheque was written; Mr McNeillage was paid a small supplementary amount – around £1,500 – to go on holiday.
     We have to pinch ourselves: yes, it is true: Mr Coulson is the closest aide to the prime minister. He is in charge of Mr Cameron’s communications. Heaven help us.
     In the continuing search for dignity or credibility, where do we turn next? The police came mob-handed – I use the phrase advisedly – to the Sheridans’ house and the small daughter of the co-accused was so intimidated that she hid terrified behind a sofa. This was cruel and gratuitous.


Did they not realise how counter-productive their actions were? Did they not appreciate that a jury might feel its proper role was being usurped by the crowd?


     The media coverage of the trial was shocking, if predictable, in its partiality. After they had covered the prosecution case with melodramatic, occasionally comic emphasis – ‘Tommy drops his briefs again’ was the headline in two tabloid newspapers the day after Mr Sheridan dismissed his counsel, the sexual innuendo all too clear – the newspapers lost interest. The defence witnesses were not accorded the same attention. The case drifted like snow from the front pages.
     The prosecutor, a Mr Prentice, adopted a magnanimous posture in dropping the charges against Gail Sheridan last week. He declared that to proceed was no longer in the public interest. But if it was not in the public interest last week, why was it in the public interest last month or last year? I do not expect that Mr Prentice, or his employers in the Crown Office, will clarify the reasons for this act of apparent generosity.
     Do the friends of the co-accused emerge with any dignity or credibility? The warmth of their support is not in question: they cheered when Gail Sheridan was acquitted; they applauded Tommy Sheridan’s extended summing-up. Did they not realise how counter-productive their actions were? Did they not appreciate that a jury might feel its proper role was being usurped by the crowd?
     That leaves Mr Sheridan himself. A five-hour speech, often from a bleeding heart, could only have alienated; his decision to dispense with counsel was arrogant and fatally misguided. The summing-up needed a good editor. A jury of his peeers, drawn from his native city, decided with its verdict that much of his conduct in life should have been edited too.


Why did the Crown put Mrs Sheridan in the dock and then acquit her at the last minute on unexplained public interest grounds?


     Yet questions about this case, and the official handling of it, are likely to persist far beyond what remains of Mrs Angiolini’s reign as Lord Advocate.
     Why was this highly unusual prosecution brought in the first place when the Crown knew that it would need to depend almost entirely on the evidence of witnesses whose testimony had been rejected by the previous jury?
     Why did the Crown not produce forensic evidence to support the taped ‘confession’ bought by the newspaper? This failure is particularly disturbing.
     Why did the Crown put Mrs Sheridan in the dock and then acquit her at the last minute on unexplained public interest grounds?
     Why were the police so aggressively interested in the case (with so much else of greater importance to attend to, including loss of life) and why did they make the disgraceful suggestion to Mrs Sheridan during their questioning of her that she was behaving like a terrorist by exercising her legal right to silence?
     Was the press coverage of the trial, particularly in its early stages, prejudicial?
     None of these questions is likely to be of immediate interest to the central figure in this cause celebre, who now faces the near-certainty of spending years in prison. By the time he is released, Tommy Sheridan will be pushing 50, his public life and reputation in ruins, with no obvious way back. The long ordeal will have finished him; the butterfly will have been broken on the wheel.

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