should be released
a week tomorrow
Tommy Sheridan with wife Gail
It already feels like a very long time since that early summer in the age of comparative innocence, when such leaders of society as Jon Snow, Robert Peston and Michael Gove left the now notorious all-night party at the Murdochs' country residence. Within 48 hours, all hell had been let loose over the hacking of a dead girl's phone.
Now that the floods of autumn are here and the snows of Christmas cannot be far behind, all has gone eerily quiet. Little is heard of the police investigation; after an impressive flurry of arrests, no charges have been brought to date. Most people have probably forgotten the name of the chief functionary, even if they will never quite forget her hair. Among the innocent guests caught in the headlights, Mr Gove is again in the news, but only with an advisory role in the Werritty affair, while there will soon be the annual story about Mr Snow's refusal to wear a poppy.
Later this week, in the United States, restive shareholders of News Corp will attempt to expunge the name Murdoch from the company's board, but it is unlikely they will succeed. Back in London, the plan to summon son James before a select committee to explain apparent inconsistencies in his earlier evidence seems to have come to nothing. A prime minister called Dave, the former employer of Coulson, has emerged from his various misadventures of the year with barely a scratch.
Ah yes, the prisons may be full, but not with the providers of the high-season diversion. It is easier to bang up the odd looter than to nail this lot.
Or, come to that, the odd Tommy. One of the supreme ironies of the year (so far) is that the only person doing time because of his association with the Murdoch empire is not any of the friends of that discredited dynasty, but its most bitter enemy. Tommy Sheridan found that the price for crossing Murdoch was three years.
Of course, the charge was not 'crossing Murdoch'. It was a bit more subtle. Mr Sheridan went down for committing perjury in his earlier civil proceedings over disobliging stories printed about him in the News of the World. Remember it?
When Mr Sheridan was bundled into a van to take him the short distance from the High Court in Glasgow to Barlinnie Prison, this 'newspaper' (as it was sometimes loosely described) was still a power in the land. Two or three million people – the precise figure is immaterial – bought it faithfully every week. But then, in the heat of summer, old man Murdoch decided that saving his own skin was more important than saving the News of the World. Here one day, it was gone the next. Its readers dispersed without protest to alternative sources of titillation. Never was a dead paper less lamented.
I wonder what has happened to the disgusting idea of putting Mrs
Sheridan and her daughter on the street. But let that pass. Here are
a few questions.
Mr Sheridan observed these startling events from prison. In the early weeks of his sentence, he was confined to a cell 23 hours a day. From there he attempted to write and publish an internet journal with comments on current events as well as occasional references to his own condition. This therapeutic activity got him into trouble with the authorities. He was searched – one supposes strip-searched – for a mobile phone (none was found) and warned that if he persisted with the publication of the journal he would risk any hope of early release. Nothing better characterises the horror and futility of our penal regime than that an intelligent man should be threatened with punishment for disseminating his thoughts.
By the summer, and the night of the smart party at the Murdochs, Tommy Sheridan had been transferred to an open prison, Castle Huntly in Angus, making his existence more comfortable but contact with his family in Glasgow more difficult.
Unease about this case has not diminished with the passage of Mr Sheridan's time in prison. It was being felt, and strongly expressed, by fair-minded people across the political spectrum long before the events of the summer gave some credence to his claim that he had been stitched-up.
During his trial, the Scottish Review claimed that the accused's chances of a fair hearing were being seriously prejudiced by the nature of some of the media coverage. This SR editorial was presented to the judge, but nothing was done.
Two days before Christmas, by the narrowest of margins, a Glasgow jury convicted him. BBC Scotland promptly broadcast a tabloid-style feature, 'The Rise and Lies of Tommy Sheridan', using tapes it had 'acquired' of police interviews with Mr Sheridan and his wife. When we suggested in a series of editorials early this year that the likeliest source of the tapes was the police, we were accused of being unfair to these unimpeachable enforcers of law and order.
On the morning after his imprisonment, the Murdoch press declared that it would try to reclaim its expenses by making a legal grab on the Sheridan family's home. I wonder what has happened to the disgusting idea of putting Mrs Sheridan and her young daughter on the street. But let that pass. Here are a few questions.
Would the same Glasgow jury – or indeed any jury – have convicted him if it had been given the power of foresight? Would it have convicted him if it had known that, within half a year, witnesses in the trial would themselves be the subject of a perjury investigation? Would it have convicted him if it had known that the News of the World was a deeply criminal organisation, hacking into the phones of the victims of terrorism and murder? Would it have convicted him if it had known of the extent of the collusion between the police and the media in London and elsewhere?
On 26 January this year, Tommy Sheridan entered prison. On 26 October, he will have served nine months. At that point, theoretically at least, having served a quarter of his sentence, he is eligible to be released on an electronic tag. We suggest that, in all the circumstances, he should be freed from prison a week tomorrow. Every day he serves beyond then is a day too long.
Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review