“The working class people and the jury who have found in our favour have done a service to the people of Scotland and have delivered a message to the standard of journalism that the News of the World NOTW represents. They are liars and we have proved that they are liars.”
Standing outside the Court of Session in Edinburgh on the fourth of August, Scottish Socialist MSP Tommy Sheridan delivered his own verdict on the Scottish edition of News International’s News of the World (NOTW) in Scotland after a jury of 11 took just two and a half hours to find in the politician’s favour after 23 days of testimony in one of the more bizarre libel actions ever brought in a British court.
Here was a political story that had everything. The principled working-class politician and the prostitute, the allegations of adultery with a tabloid journalist, hotel-room orgies and swinger club visits, alleged tabloid intrigue and a political party tearing itself apart in public.
Little wonder then, that the story captured the Scottish public’s attention and had the local press –and in the closing stages, the UK nationwide media–reeling in dizzy anticipation as each day in the courts brought forward more bizarre and fantastic stories screaming out to be put on the next day’s front pages or at the top of that day’s radio and television news.
Describing the jury verdict as “perverse”, News of the World in Scotland editor Bob Bird said, “This result suggest that 18 independent witnesses came to this court and committed monstrous acts of perjury. We simply cannot accept that this is what happened.” (At the time of writing, an appeal has been formally lodged with the Court of Session by the newspaper.)
The 42 year old politician was delivering his victory speech after successfully being awarded £200,000 damages from the Scottish red-top for claims of adultery, kinky group sex, swinging and cocaine snorting. Widely held by political friend and foe alike to be a man of unusual political conviction and integrity, the Scottish Socialist party co-founder and former leader was previously best known for leading the Scottish Militant Labour revolt against Margaret Thatcher’s much-detested poll tax in the 1990s.
Prior to the tabloid allegations, Sheridan’s only weakness had been his self-confessed penchant for sun-beds. All a far cry from the politician’s public image as the teetotal, amateur football-playing MSP; a Glaswegian born and raised in one of Glasgow’s most deprived districts; a man who drew only half of his salary, giving the rest to his funds-stricken party when not busy protesting outside Scotland’s Faslane nuclear naval base.
The sorry chronology goes something like this. In October 2004, The Scottish News of the World ran a story about an unnamed MSP who had visited a Manchester sex club and had an affair with one of its regular columnists, Anvar Khan, the claims being extracted from her then still unpublished book “Pretty Wild (The Most Honest Diary About Men, Women And Sex You Will Ever Read)”.
In the story published, the “busty 37-year-old” columnist revealed how the “mystery MSP liked to be SPANKED, enjoyed ROMPING at swingers’ parties and even asked her to arrange a THREESOME.”
The NOTW’s sex columnist gave the MSP (referred to in her book as “Patrick”), her number after meeting him in an Edinburgh bar in May 2001 (Sheridan was married in 2000). According to Khan, they met a month later for dinner, before meeting again two weeks later where they had “the worst kind of drunk sex you could ever have. While he was lying on my bed afterwards he spotted a pair of red PVC gloves. He asked me to put them on and then begged me to give him a spanking.”
She didn’t hear from Sheridan again until August of the same year she claimed; ostensibly offering to visit her in London where she was now living, but the real reason for the call being revealed when “he asked if she’d been in touch with any of her pals about a threesome.” He then allegedly rang back a month later with yet “another kinky suggestion”, asking her if she wanted to go to a swinger’s party at a club called Cupids in Manchester. According to Khan, “he had obviously been here before.”
Driving to Manchester with several friends and a woman very obviously not the MSP’s wife, she watched as one of the men massaged the woman’s breasts. The woman was all the while busy “performing a sex act on Patrick as he drove.” She didn’t hear from “Patrick” again until she had returned to Scotland to work for News International, claiming in the original article that “I think he was panicking because I’d started my News of the World column and he was worried I’d spill the beans.”
Sheridan resigned his position as party convenor on 11th November 2004 for “personal reasons” and to ostensibly spend more time with his family (his wife was expecting their first child at the time).
Just a matter of days later (and acting on an earlier tip-off from freelance investigative journalist Allan Caldwell that Sheridan had been seen in a hot-tub with two women in Cupids as long ago as 2002), the newspaper carried a story (“My kinky 4-in-a-bed orgy with Tommy”) based on interviews secretly recorded with SSP party activist Fiona McGuire by news editor Douglas Wight (McGuire was paid £20,000 for her kiss-and-tell story). “He liked you to dominate him. He liked uniforms. He liked whipping just a little bit, at the top of his legs” claimed McGuire.
McGuire, a self-confessed “party girl” and former prostitute who also went by the name “Christy Babe” when working as an escort girl, claimed to have first met Sheridan at an SSP activist’s house in 2000 whilst “under the influence of copious amounts of drugs and alcohol.” This initial meeting, she claimed, would later lead to further trysts between the two in a number of Aberdeen and Glasgow hotels as well as her eventual five-in-a-bed sex and cocaine revelations.
Cited as evidence for the defence by the NOTW in the first week of the trail, the 32 year old mother of three’s taped interview painted a seduction worthy of Barbara Cartland’s pen. “We ordered strawberries and champagne. He said I had really beautiful eyes and I had a naughtiness. He was a very considerate lover.” Giving evidence during the second week of the trial, she confessed to giving a “romantic view” of their meetings, as the reality was “too degrading”. (In the course of the trial, McGuire was revealed to have slept between 200 and 300 men and was accused in court of being a “fantasist” and “gold digger”. One further bizarre development saw McGuire’s ex-husband reveal in a rival Scottish Sunday how she had tricked him into marrying her by pretending to have leukaemia–“Fiona is a money-grabbing fantasist” he told the Scottish Sunday Mail).
Challenged in court by Sheridan about “telling lies about people” and having invented a source (the “My kinky 4-in-a-bed orgy with Tommy” revelations were attributed to a friend rather than McGuire), NOTW editor Bob Bird refuted these and Sheridan’s other contentions that McGuire was pressurised into green-lighting the allegations despite previously having gotten “cold feet” and an earlier suicide attempt, claiming that he was “100 per cent happy” that the “core” of the story was true (albeit with the caveat that McGuire’s court testimony was at odds with what she had originally told NOTW reporters). Giving testimony as to the credulity of McGuire, Douglas Wight –who conducted interviews with McGuire and another woman who claimed to have seen Sheridan engaged in group sex in a Glasgow hotel for the NOTW–observed that “She obviously had certain issues going on in her life, but not unstable.”
(It was a pertinent line of enquiry also used by Sheridan to considerable rhetorical effect, claiming in court that: “They endangered my wife, they endangered my child and –you know what –they endangered Fiona McGuire as well. They couldn’t care less because the bottom line is selling newspapers.”)
Sheridan admitted to a brief relationship with Khan in 1992, but rejected claims that he cheated on his wife, whom he married in 2000, with the Glasgow journalist. Khan admitted in court that, although the article referred to Sheridan, “there are elements of the puff which can relate to reality and there are other parts which cannot.” The strict teetotaller wasn’t in fact drunk, nor had he taken drugs or asked to be spanked.
Nonetheless, her central claim that they had in fact went to Cupids with another couple was true she insisted. She also acknowledged that her agent had attempted to sell the story to the Daily Mail after the first accusations about Sheridan’s alleged sex life were made public in the NOTW. Asked by Sheridan’s representative if a figure of £30,000 was accurate or not, she replied: “I can’t recall.”
On day 17 of the trial, National Union of Journalists (NUJ) official Paul Holloran claimed that Khan had contacted the NUJ when asked by the NOTW to sign an affidavit to provide court testimony. According to Holloran, the journalist, whose contract with the NOTW was up for renewal at the time in question, was “concerned that her contract was not going to be renewed unless she cooperated with the demands of the editor [Bob Bird]. (Holloran’s decision to pass on this information to Sheridan’s legal team raises important ethical questions about NUJ client confidentiality which are another matter entirely.)
She signed the affidavit on 17 November 2004 (three days after the story outing Sheridan as the swinging MSP), after a lawyer acting on the NOTW’s behalf brought it to her Glasgow home. “I was under a lot of attack in the press and I agreed with Bob [Bird] to sign the affidavit to protect myself.” Tellingly, Khan could not recall telling the man from the NUJ that she had signed the legal document in order to continue working for the newspaper, but did concede that the newspaper had brought great pressure to bear.
So far, so cut and dried. Any seasoned media-watcher would see that the whole thing was quite obviously an elaborate tabloid stitch-up. What else could it be when defence witness testimony was proven to be flimsier than the flimsiest house of cards and key witnesses included not only primary beneficiaries of chequebook journalism, but also a freelance journalist who had not only added colour to her allegations, but had tried to sell the story to another newspaper and whose contract with the NOTW had at the time been up for renewal?
An open and shut case one would have thought, were it not but for the fact that witnesses for News International’s defence also included members of Sheridan’s own political party: party members who claimed that Sheridan had in fact confessed to visiting a swinger’s club when first confronted about rumours in 2002. The SSP claims that rumours about Sheridan visiting a Manchester sex club first started circulating in late 2001. Confronted by SSP National Policy and Press Coordinator Alan McCombes about the allegations, Sheridan denied them outright.
Long-time Sheridan political friend and ally Keith Baldassara was told the same story by a neighbour in Sheridan’s Glasgow Pollok constituency. This time Sheridan, who Baldassara claims was “evasive” and “uncomfortable”, did not deny the claims, but instead assured Baldassara that there was nothing to worry about, and that it would never go public. In November 2002, Sheridan allegedly advised Baldassara that he had been back to Cupids in Manchester, and that some sections of the media were on to it. Baldassara met McCombes to advise him of this and another alleged incident at Glasgow’s Moat House Hotel, where two women–who later tried to sell their stories –claimed to have witnessed Sheridan engaging in group sex in exquisite detail.
McCombe’s accepted Sheridan’s assertion that he was innocent of any personal involvement in the alleged hotel incident, but called on him over the sex club visits. McCombes has said that Sheridan accepted the foolishness of his behaviour, but remained adamant that the story would not go public. McCombes claims that he accepted these assurances, and decided that it would be in the party’s best interest if the lid was firmly closed on the episode. (At this stage, only Sheridan, Baldassara and McCombes were privy to these private discussions, and McCombes alleges not to have been informed by Sheridan that he was accompanied by NOTW journalist Khan on his visit to Cupids’: had he known, he would not have simply waited for the storm to merely blow over.)
The NOTW published its “MARRIED MSP IS SPANKING SWINGER” story in October 2004. McCombes claims to have phoned Sheridan in the early hours of Sunday morning on reading the story (which was obviously a trail for a follow-up) in the first edition. McCombes, angry at Sheridan’s alleged concealment of NOTW journalist Khan’s involvement in proceedings, arranged to meet Sheridan at the scheduled SSP National Council in Edinburgh the following day.
McCombes claims to have then met Sheridan in Baldassara’s presence in Sheridan’s office in Glasgow’s City Chambers on Monday 1st November. The two men state that they urged Sheridan to go to the editor of the more sympathetic Scottish Mirror in order to take the sting out of the NOTW story. Baldassara and McCombes claim that Sheridan steadfastly asserted that he “could win this” and that he would “destroy” Khan.
Moreover, if the story got out, he would be “totally destroyed” with no hope of coming back. (Although still not named, the “word” on Sheridan was already very much out on the streets. SSP party activist George McNeilage received what was considered to be reliable evidence circulating around the Glasgow underworld that Sheridan was a regular visitor of sex clubs.)
SSP National Secretary, Allan Green, and the Co-Chairs –Carolyn Leckie and Catriona Grant –convened an emergency executive committee (EC) meeting for the 9th November 2004 to address the media storm heading their way.
Having failed to attend an earlier meeting, Sheridan attended the EC meeting and, according to the SSP, admitted visiting Cupids on two occasions in 1996 and 2002 and asked for support but insisted that he would deal with events “in his own way” (denying everything), and that he would instigate legal proceedings against the newspaper on the basis that they “could not prove” their claims. Sheridan, who had to leave the meeting early, was not around to see EC members and non-EC regional organiser vote unanimously asking him to step down.
It is precisely at this point that there is a major parting of the ways between Sheridan and his supporters and the rest of the SSP, with separate pro-Sheridan “SSP Majority” and anti-Sheridan “United Left” factions. Sheridan has argued throughout that he was invited to step down because he wanted to take on the NOTW over a false allegation. The SSP, for its part, claims that it was not prepared to back a libel action to prove what it considered to be a blatant fiction on Sheridan’s part. The party had instead requested that he deny the allegations and pursue his grievances against the newspaper through public and political channels rather than through the courts.
(Writing in an SSP Summer Bulletin prepared directly after Sheridan’s court victory, SSP National Policy and Press Coordinator Alan McCombes observed that although Sheridan had in fact portrayed his court battle as a “heroic political stand against the Murdoch empire”, he was in fact offered a column by the Scottish Sun newspaper just weeks after being sworn into the Scottish Parliament in 1999. According to McCombes, Sheridan argued in private discussions within the party that accepting the offer would allow the ideas of socialism to be taken to a mass tabloid readership: so much for the evil empire which had crushed the British printing trade unions with their move to modern printing presses in Wapping, London, in the mid-1980s. Sheridan would in fact go on to write for the Scottish Daily Record, part of the Trinity Mirror Group; an opportunistic move by the popular daily to get one over its News International owned rival.)
The EC meeting of 9th November would take on great significance in the ensuing libel case, as a hotly disputed minute in which Sheridan was alleged to have apologised for his behaviour was cited in evidence for the defence and finally heard in court despite the better efforts of co-party founder McCombes to refuse to hand it over. McCombes was found in contempt of court and jailed for his troubles. (As part of its defence, the NOTW requested that the SSP turn over all documents pertaining to the EC meeting prior to Sheridan’s eventual resignation. SSP offices and McCombes’ home were raided by court messengers-at-arms.)
Cross-examining Allan Green (until recently the party’s national secretary and one of Sheridan’s oldest allies), during the trial, Sheridan–conducting his own defence after sacking his legal team in a typically dramatic turn of events after a junior member made false claims of credit card fraud against a defence witness–said the “so-called” minute was “as dodgy as a 10-bob note” and said that Green was part of a plot to undermine Sheridan.
Green replied that: “For you to turn round and accuse me of monstrous frame-ups it is shameful Tommy, it is shameful.” A long line of divided SSP party faithful would stand up in court and provide conflicting testimony. SSP party worker Jock Penman told Sheridan in court that “I got the impression this was like a family fall-out because the people who were the most vociferous were people who had known you the longest. Another man standing in the politician’s camp claimed that the first thing Alan McCombes said to him was: “Tommy Sheridan’s finished.”
The notion of an internal struggle within the SSP led by a cabal Sheridan would describe in an open letter issued to the press in May 2006 as a “gender-obsessed discussion group” out to split the party would form the major thrust of his defence rejecting the contents of the EC meeting of 9th November. The open letter, described in the most disparaging terms by the SSP as “one of the most dismal documents ever circulated within the socialist movement in Scotland”, was considered by some in the SSP to be a desperate ploy by Sheridan to secure newspaper column inches to help portray himself as the hapless victim of an internal putsch in the run-up to his day in court. (In a surreal twist, Sheridan’s glamorous air hostess wife Gail’s perceived quiet dignity under pressure as she quietly sat in court and listened to tales of her husband’s alleged infidelity saw her labelled Scotland’s “Fragrant Mary”; a reference to disgraced Tory peer Lord Archer’s wife Mary’s stoic countenance during arch fabulist Archer’s infamous 1987 libel case).
Not long after securing victory against News International in the courts, Sheridan vowed in the Daily Record to “destroy the scabs” within the SSP who he claims conspired to oust him, indicating that he was prepared to return to the fray of SSP party politics again. The witches coven which made up part of the “United Left” faction Sheridan claimed was out to get him –SSP MSPs Carolyn Leckie, Frances Curran and Rosie Kane –issued a statement claiming that they stood by the evidence they gave in court, that there was no “plot” against Sheridan and that they invited the prospect of a formal inquiry that would allow them to clear their names.
Reflecting on the verdict, other sections of the SSP proved to be in more forgiving mood, with SSP leader Colin Fox –whilst still asserting that Sheridan had admitted visiting a sex club –saluting Sheridan’s victory against News International, but proving more circumspect about the damage many SSP members felt Sheridan had brought upon the party:
“Tommy Sheridan’s victory in his action against the News of the World is an extraordinary achievement against heavy odds. Every socialist will rejoice in the jury’s rejection of the News of the World’s journalism which this verdict represents. “We now have to turn our attentions to the difficult task of taking the SSP forward and healing the wounds opened up by the case.”
On Sunday 3 September, Sheridan announced plans, along with fellow SSP MSP Rosemary Byrne, to form a breakaway party, Solidarity–Scotland’s Socialist Movement. In an SSP Executive Statement issued as a response to what many in the party felt to be a further development of Sheridan’s great conceit, the party stated that:
“Tommy Sheridan and his supporters are guilty of an act of political irresponsibility which can only delight the enemies of socialism in Scotland.
“Tommy is now walking out of the party because he cannot win a majority. His actions are those of an egotistical politician who is contemptuous of democracy. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, the party membership has forfeited the confidence of the great leader so the great leader will now elect a new membership.”
Savouring the David versus Goliath nature of his victory against News International, Sheridan compared his own unexpected court success with that of lowly Scottish football club Gretna’s achievement in reaching European club football for the first time in its history, claiming on the court steps after the landmark verdict that “what we have done in the last five weeks is the equivalent of Gretna taking on Real Madrid in the Bernabeu and beating them on penalties.”
Gretna went on to lose heavily in the first leg of their first European adventure before securing a face-saving but ultimately worthless draw in the second leg. Only time will tell whether Sheridan has won the battle or lost the war. He certainly seems to have lost the support of the party he helped create. Even the Scottish Daily Record, which carried a number of Sheridan favourable exclusive interviews after the trial, was moved to note on 5 August that “Although he won the case, it is not necessarily assumed every shred of evidence given against him was false.”
Despite Sheridan’s unexpected court victory, questions as to why an SSP branch motion calling for libel trial evidence to be destroyed was circulated from his parliamentary email account remain unanswered. Above and beyond this, he remains beset by allegations of sexually predatory behaviour towards young female members going back to his Scottish Militant days which are also continue to do the rounds.
Michael Jones, Counsel for the NOTW, noted that “History is littered with the political corpses of great men who have been brought down by their own recklessness.” It remains to be seen whether Sheridan belongs to their number or he is, as he has insisted all along, the unwitting victim of a conspiracy borne of vicious party in-fighting and a salacious tabloid not known for its love of left-wing political firebrands.
“The allegations in the course of this case have been as numerous as grains of sand in the Sahara Desert. But evidence, but real tangible, substantial evidence, has been conspicuous by its absence” he claimed.
Man of integrity or pillar of salt? The jury remains firmly out.
WILLIAM MacDOUGALL can be reached at: email@example.com