Tommy Sheridan, one of Scotland’s most prominent socialists, has been told to expect ‘to begin a prison sentence’ after being found guilty of perjury on 23rd December. Katherine Connelly looks at the issues behind the case.
Tommy Sheridan speaking at a Stop the War protest in 2006
The perjury case stems from Tommy Sheridan’s successful libel case in 2006 against News of the World which had claimed in its paper that Sheridan had committed adultery and visited swingers clubs.
News of the World: exposing the powerful?
In reaction to the guilty verdict on 23rd December Bob Bird, News of the World’s Scottish editor, stated “The News of the World has a proud history of exposing the hypocrisy and lies of the powerful. Today’s verdict is a vindication of good investigative journalism”. A statement that is steeped in hypocrisy. For the last four years the News of the World has been subject to revelations of widespread ‘phone hacking to obtain stories about peoples’ private lives. That is not good investigative journalism - it is illegal activity.
Moreover, Tommy Sheridan is not ‘powerful’, but it is easy to see why a newspaper like the News of the World would want to see him discredited. At the time of their initial allegations, Sheridan was a Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) - a socialist coalition that achieved an early and significant electoral breakthrough for the left when six of its members were elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2003 on the back of anti-war and anti-poverty campaigns. At that time Sheridan was the convenor of the party and had a long history of principled action - being imprisoned for his resistance to the poll tax and twice for protesting at the nuclear fleet at Faslane Naval Base.
If the News of the World were out to expose the powerful then why is its former editor Andy Coulson, who spent 2 days in the witness box testifying against Sheridan, now working for David Cameron?
The courts: not a friend of the left
When the News of the World published its allegations about Sheridan’s sex life, Tommy Sheridan’s response was to take the newspaper to court to publicly clear his name. He did this despite the advice of some SSP members who felt that the odds were stacked against a socialist taking on a hugely powerful tabloid in the courts.
This advice was probably sound. The law is biased: administered by judges whose lives are utterly divorced from the experience of ordinary people; the courts remain places where poor people can expect prison sentences for failing to pay a TV licence or for benefit fraud, while at the same time tax fraud by the rich and multinational companies is rarely investigated.
Indeed, in the same month Tommy Sheridan was found guilty the Crown Prosecution Service has advised that there is not enough evidence to charge Andy Coulson for the ‘phone hacking at News of the World.
However, despite the class bias in the system and the power of News of the World, Sheridan won the case.
That was not merely a victory for Tommy Sheridan, it was a victory for everyone who hates the power of the tabloid press, its poisonous right-wing agenda and its arrogant attitude that it is above the law.
It is likely that nothing more would have happened had ‘evidence’ not been produced by some members of the SSP which formed the basis of the subsequent trial of Sheridan for perjury.
In the case of SSP member George McNeilage, this ‘evidence’ was handed over for £200,000.
Other SSP members testified against Sheridan. This was a propaganda coup for the News of the World who could imply their attacks on Sheridan were not politically motivated when their witnesses “came from all walks of life, social classes and political views; most were not News of the World readers”.
Against charges that they were siding with a powerful, reactionary tabloid, some of the SSP members who testified against Sheridan protested they had a left-wing justification - alleging that Sheridan had demonstrated sexist behaviour or had been undemocratic in not following their advice.
But however badly some SSP members may have felt Sheridan had behaved, settling their grievances in the courts was the wrong way to deal with this, especially when it meant testifying for News of the World. Going to the courts to settle old vendettas only weakened and split the Scottish left.
Problems could and should have been dealt with through the democratic mechanisms in the SSP where right-wing, corporate newspapers could not have benefited.
The News of the World were not interested in exposing sexism - their paper is notorious for its vile, sexist images of women.
Socialists should be clear: the matter of whether Sheridan did or did not commit perjury is not the issue at stake. It is an impractical question as we cannot know - some people said he did, Sheridan and others claim he did not. Nevertheless, the News of the World case seems flimsy - the original 19 charges were dropped to 6 and Sheridan was convicted of 5. The perjury case against Sheridan’s wife, Gail Sheridan, was also dropped.
The issue is simple. A prominent and effective socialist fighter was targeted by the right-wing press and now faces years of imprisonment for standing up to the Murdoch press. Tommy Sheridan deserves our full support and solidarity.
Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.
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