Britain: Tommy Sheridan’s victory over News of the World

Tommy Sheridan has won his libel action against the News of the World (NoW) and Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.

Two articles from The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales.

Tommy Sheridan’s victory over News of the World

It is a victory not only for Tommy Sheridan, but for socialists and the left internationally over one of the most reactionary, anti-working class news organisations in the world.

The jury’s verdict was that Tommy Sheridan was defamed by articles written in the NoW in 2004 and 2005 which accused him of having affairs, visiting swingers’ clubs for group sex and taking alcohol and cocaine.

His victory was all the more remarkable given the fact that 11 members of the Scottish Socialist Party’s (SSP) executive committee, including three MSPs, gave evidence that Tommy Sheridan had admitted visiting a swingers’ club in Manchester.

The SSP leadership’s evidence formed a central plank of the NoW defence. Eleven of the 18 witnesses called by the NoW were SSP members and as the NoW’s main claim against Tommy Sheridan – that of a four-year affair – fell to pieces during the month-long trial, they increasingly relied on the SSP witnesses.

The press in Scotland have described the case as the "most sensational libel trial in Scottish history". And the outcome, which resulted in the jury awarding Tommy Sheridan £200,000 – the largest pay-out ever in a Scottish court for defamation – has sent tremors through the media, legal and political establishment.

It is a huge defeat for the NoW and its gutter methods of journalism. Sources in the Scottish media have information that News International’s owner Rupert Murdoch is personally incensed that Tommy Sheridan managed to defeat his multi-national corporation.

They are to appeal the decision as a "perverse" judgement and the police are now looking into a perjury inquiry.

Iain McWhirter writing in the Sunday Herald summed up the significance of the result: "It was a rebuke to an industry that preys on human misery and disclosure; that uses chequebook journalism, spin, sensation, distortion. This has been a long time coming."

"David can defeat Goliath," was how the Herald newspaper began its editorial comment on the outcome of the case.

"Working class hero," was the Mirror’s front page.

The Scottish media have been saturated with reports of the outcome. There has also been widespread coverage in the British press, the result even made the front page of the most serious voice of British capitalism, the Financial Times.

Tommy Sheridan sacked his legal team two weeks into the case and represented himself until the end of the trial.

With an "amateur" legal team of an SSP member from Orkney and his two sisters he astonished professional legal opinion by winning, moving one QC to comment: "In any court, passion and belief in one’s cause cannot be underestimated and Sheridan used these qualities to astonishing effect."

In a powerful 85-minute speech to the jury, that some commentators described as the greatest political speech they had ever heard, Tommy Sheridan told them he was taking on one of the biggest organisations in the world which had targeted him because he was a socialist and someone who speaks out against injustice.

On leaving the court after the result he told supporters and the throng of press: "What today’s verdict proves is that working-class people when they listen to the arguments can differentiate the truth from muck.

"The working class people in the jury have found in our favour and have delivered a message to the standard of journalism that the News of the World represents."


SSP crisis deepens

While Tommy Sheridan’s victory was enthusiastically welcomed by working-class people across Scotland, this was not the case among the leadership of the Scottish Socialist Party.

It is astonishing that following an earth-shattering victory over News International, and all that it stands for, the SSP leadership could within minutes of the verdict denounce Tommy Sheridan as a liar and demand an apology from him.

SSP MSP Carolyn Leckie said: "I’m still a socialist, I don’t believe Tommy Sheridan to be one." In her column in the Sunday Mail SSP MSP Rosie Kane said: "Whatever happens I can never work with Tommy again and I am not alone."

This was quickly followed by an SSP executive committee (EC), attended in the main by those SSP members who gave evidence in court, that decided to give themselves 100% backing for "telling the truth".

All SSP members have now received a lengthy "SSP members’ bulletin" written by Alan McCombes entitled The Fight for the Truth that puts the case for the EC members and also contains the minutes of the meeting of 9 November 2004 that voted to ask for Tommy Sheridan to resign as national convenor following a discussion about his private life.

In this bulletin they argue that, in order to clear their names, they will "bring out every piece of relevant information" they have on Tommy Sheridan.

This is in response to being accused by Tommy Sheridan of a "monstrous political frame-up" and of having acted like "political scabs" in siding with the NoW against a socialist.

This unbelievably destructive policy will not rehabilitate them, but will instead increase their political isolation among SSP members and especially the working class across Scotland.

And, given the prominent role that some of them have played in the socialist movement in the past, it will ruin their reputations forever. But in doing so they will inevitably force a split in the SSP and could destroy any chance the party has of recovering from the crisis.

Principled position

The CWI in Scotland has never altered one iota from our principled position on these events. Despite our political differences with Tommy Sheridan, who along with Alan McCombes, Colin Fox and Frances Curran left the CWI in 2001, we opposed the actions of the EC in November 2004 that claimed to seek to "protect the party" from Tommy Sheridan’s private life.

Long before this court case the SSP was seriously damaged following Tommy Sheridan being pressured into resigning by the SSP EC. This has nothing to do with a "cult of personality" but a recognition of Tommy Sheridan’s standing and support among wide sections of the working class in Scotland, not least because of his leading role in the mass anti-poll tax struggle.

It is an indication of how far the SSP leadership has become out of touch from the outlook of the working class, which is linked to their move away from a consistent socialist approach, that they could have ended up in a courtroom giving evidence for the NoW’s case.

Even if everything the NoW had written was true, and it was patently not, it would in no way have justified the SSP leadership’s action against Tommy Sheridan in 2004 or since then.

They made a catastrophic mistake at that meeting in November 2004. They buckled under the pressure of the tabloid media and in keeping a so-called "minute" of that meeting that went into personal details, including "confessions" they acted in a way that no socialist or trade unionist could possibly accept.

This is underlined by the fact that the overwhelming majority of trade unionists in the SSP, including the RMT in Scotland which is affiliated to the party, supported Tommy Sheridan.

These events are a kick in the teeth for working-class people who are screaming out for a party prepared to fight for their interests. The CWI in Scotland will work to re-build the socialist movement with a principled socialist leadership. Unfortunately, this will involve electing a new leadership to replace the current one.

Tommy Sheridan’s victory can help in that process and hopefully, following the October 2006 SSP conference, it will be possible to re-launch a principled socialist alternative to challenge the big business consensus and fight poverty, injustice and inequality.

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