By the way - I refer everyone to the best account of the issues I have read, by Martin Wicks.
Joaquín Bustelo has published a quite lengthy rebuttal on the Marx Mail list refuting my arguments about the Sheridan tape. It seems that some people find his arguments very convincing, and so here is a first draft of my response. I may amend and refine this as other comrades point out any shortfalls in my arguments.
Firstly I should express my stand point, I have never been, nor do I ever expect to be, a member of the SSP. I have no personal or political relationship with any of the individuals or factions within the SSP. However I do support the principle of broad socialist parties. I would be interested in why Bustelo is so partisan in favour of Sheridan.
Bustelo identifies the main axis of conflict as between Sheridan and the Murdoch press, with a seeming sub-text that the News of the World (NOTW) was engaged in an operation to destroy a socialist politician because he was a socialist.
This interpretation of events has a bearing on how appropriate it was for Sheridan to engage in court action. So we need to examine it.
Firstly the tabloid press in Scotland, Wales and England is indiscriminate, and has attacked the reputations of politicians from all parties. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott; Leader of the Welsh labour party, Ron Davies; Leader of the Liberal Democrats Paddy Ashdown; former Chair of the Conservative Party, Jeffrey Archer.
Politicians have responded differently, Paddy Ashdown responded by saying it was none of the press’s business, and came out with his reputation enhanced. Conservative minister David Mellor cashed in on his notoriety to become a sports commentator. David Blunkett disastrously denied substantially true allegations and had his reputation destroyed, Jeffrey Archer and another conservative politician Jonathan Aitkin went to prison for perjury. And truth can also be liberating, as Ron Davies says in the interview I did with him: "Events have freed me up to be truer to my own beliefs"
Not only does the press attack politicians of all parties, but court action is not necessarily the best political response, and if the press allegations are true then it can be disastrous.
There is another question that engaging in court action exposes the Labour movement to judicial interference. When the Daily Mirror libelled miners’ leader Arthur Scargill, Scargill quite correctly relied upon a labour movement campaign of public meetings and publications refuting the claims. To have done otherwise would not only have exposed the NUM’s reputation to potential defeat in court, but also opened the books of the NUM to outside scrutiny, while they will probably have quite justifiably engaged in some (morally and ethically correct but legally dubious) financial obfuscation during their year long strike
Arthur Scargill has also been extremely careful during his career to give no unnecessary personal pretext to the press to attack him. Tommy Sheridan’s personal life is his own, but whatever political judgement we may make about swingers clubs and three in a bed sex, anyone who wishes to make those lifestyle choices should perhaps consider a less high profile political career. This may not be true in other countries or cultures, but in Scotland, Wales and England the press can and will relentlessly pursue a prurient agenda about sex, that is likely to overwhelm any other political message coming from that individual or his party.
So even had the NOTW allegations been entirely untrue, it is dubious that a court action was necessarily the best response. The advice of the party was for Sheridan to brave it out.
However, once Sheridan decided to initiate libel action this could not just be an action between Sheridan and the NOTW, it also inevitably entailed another dynamic – which was a conflict within the SSP. I find the argument that there was prior conspiracy against Sheridan totally unconvincing and unsupported by any evidence. However, given that there was a feeling within the party that Sheridan should not proceed, and given that a substantial minority at least believed there was some truth in the story, then proceeding with the libel action would inevitably damage the party.
Bustelo makes the remarkable claim that the evidence of the tape is that: “SHERIDAN DOES NOT ADMIT THE TRUTH OF THE NEWS OF THE WORLD CHARGES. On the contrary, he point-by-point refutes them. In this, the transcript is largely consistent with what Sheridan said in court” (Emphasis in the original)
The main thrust of Bustelo’s intervention in the debate is that the Sheridan tape supports Sheridan’s own account of the 9th November Executive Committee meeting, and that 15 members of the EC present who recall a different story are subject to some sort of cognitive dissonance due to factional hostility to Sheridan: “Basically, a majority of the NEC members had already whipped themselves up into a frenzy over this, convicted Sheridan in their own minds, and took whatever recognition of past indiscretions Sheridan laid before them at the meeting as an admission on his part that the first NotW article was true. Again, they could not or would not understand that Sheridan was saying that while indeed he had done some embarrassing and foolish things, the allegations in News of the World were not them. ”
This is the contention that needs to be addressed.
It is hard to refute Bustelo’s arguments because of the confused way he presents them. In general Bustelo’s article is hard to follow, because he does not set out his arguments and then marshal evidence to support those propositions, instead he jumbles up evidence and argument. But an important issue seems to be that he believes that because the NOTW article contained inaccuracies and specific lies, then this means that Sheridan is vindicated.
This seems to assume that Scottish libel law is the same as in America. Whereas in Scotland the defence of substantial truth can be used, which in fact is closer to the political reality. Politically it doesn’t matter if that or that detail is incorrect, if the overall thrust of the allegations is founded.
This perhaps explains why Bustelo (with no obvious context) introduces an account of how Anver Khan admits exaggerating her story, and also includes lengthy insert from another supporter of Sheridan describing the Fiona McGuire testimony, that are not directly relevant to the issue under discussion. Suddenly introducing a lot of detail gives an impression of rigour, but he does not incorporate the evidence to support his argument. Supporters of the SSP have never defended nor stood by the NOTW story. Yet Bustelo bases a lot of his argument on the idea that the inaccuracies in the NOTW article somehow wrong foot Sheridan’s opponents – this reveals his failure to distinguish between the two dynamics: Sheridan v NOTW, and Sheridan v the SSP.
The same approach of introducing a lot of technical evidence about the mechanics of tape forgery seems to give extra credibility to his discussion of the tape, but is not really relevant. At one stage he claims the tape supports Sheridan’s account, at another that the tape has been “sexed up”, and because he did not wait for the second instalment he is quiet over the tape’s dealing with Katrine Trolle’s evidence – that completely refutes his argument that the tape supports Sheridan’s account of events. Bustelo rather confusingly produces evidence that doubts the veracity and provenance of the tape, and then uses the same tape as evidence to support his argument.
Specifically Bustelo argues that Sheridan only admitted to previous sexual activity before he was married, and that the tape supports his claim that his visit to Cupids in 2002 did not happen. There are several problems with Bustelo’s account here:
i) He totally discounts the evidence of Katrine Trolle that supports the claim of the visit to Cupids in 2002. When he wrote his article Bustelo would have been unaware that the second instalment of the tape would include support of Trolle’s testimony, but he should have been aware that Trolle’s account given in Court was supported by evidence from her flat mates and her phone records. Her evidence is simply inconvenient and so it is ignored. This is consistent with Sheridan admitting to the meeting on 9th November that the story was true, as remembered by 15 of the 19 people there, but disputed by Joaquín Bustelo who was in another continent at the time.
ii) In the tape, referring to his earlier sexual activity, Sheridan says: “I've admitted that. That's out in the open. That's a matter of public record. ”, but when he described what he said to the EC he says: “I then make the biggest mistake of my life by confessing something in front of 19 f ***** g, what am I doing confessing in front of these c **** ?" ” had he only been repeating what in his own words was already in the public domain, why would he describe it as a confession and a mistake? Yet what Bustelo argues is that the EC majority confused an admission of previous activity with an admission that there was some substance to the NOTW story. He then claims that the EC may have “consciously distorted the written record of the meeting to depict Sheridan as having admitted the truth of the NotW article even though he was insisting they were false. ”
iii) Sheridan’s argument for why he should go to court are consistent with the EC majority’s claim that he intended to perjure himself. He says on the tape: “'I guarantee you if I am presented with incontrovertible evidence ? video tapes, CCTV, something of that character ? I'll put my hand up and say ?I'm sorry'...and I'll walk away. ”. Note that he is not denying that such incontrovertible evidence could be produced. Surely if the NOTW story was a pack of lies he would have said, there cannot be any evidence because it isn’t true.
iv) Why did the four comrades who subsequently remembered Sheridan denying the NOTW accusations vote for him to step down as convenor?
v) Given that the meeting was lengthy, and attended by 19 people plus Sheridan, it is inconceiveble that no-one would have sought clarification of exactly what Sheridan was admitting to. Yet this is what Bustelo would have us believe.
vi) Bustelo’s account simply fails on the basis of Occam’s razor. Instead of believing the most economical and credible account, to believe Sheridan means we have to accept the most far fetched and inclusive conspiracy, including Sheridan’s closest friends, the party leadership, et al.
With regard to the circumstances of the tape’s production and why it is only now in the public domain, Bustelo again asserts a conspiracy: “. Basically McNeilage, who was one of the three best men at his wedding, sandbagged and betrayed Sheridan, and is now running guns to the most despicable of lying bourgeois media outlets to use against a rival in the socialist movement. Do I believe this person did this all on his own initiative, independently of the anti-Sheridan faction in the leadership? Sure, I also believe in the tooth fairy and Santa Claus. ”
I don’t know George McNeilage, so cannot give any account of why he made the tape, but had the recording of the tape been part of a wider factional fight within the SSP, then the conspirators would surely have deployed it at an earlier stage which would have been to their greater advantage. It is entirely plausible that McNeilage made this tape at is own initiative. If we cast our minds back to that time there was intense speculation about what was happening in the SSP, and if McNeilage suspected that Sheridan was intending to perjure himself in such a way that the party would be damaged, he may have felt that he should record the conversation without being clear about his motives. Remember that Jeffrey Archer’s perjury was also revealed by a friend, Ted Francis, and his assistant Angele Peppiat, had been secretly recording evidence of Archer’s deceit. Again Bustelo prefers the melodramatic conspiracy explanation.
It is of course regrettable that McNeilage and now Katrine Trolle have cooperated with the NOTW. But remember that the Sheridan case has created enormous animosity, many of Sheridan’s closest friends feel a deep sense of betrayal, and Trolle herself was treated like shit in court, and is regarded as a non-person by Sheridan’s supporters who would rather ignore her evidence. The ill feeling and indiscipline in speaking to the tabloids is a consequence of Sheridan’s disgraceful behaviour, and in particular the hubris of his after court antics.
Finally, Bustelo puts a lot of smoke round the issue of whether or not the tape is reliable evidence. I don’t know and neither does he. However McNeilage vouches for the tape, and it is consistent with the evidence of 15 of the 19 people who attended the EC meeting, and it is consistent with Katrine Trolle’s evidence. What is more, the NOTW having already been stung with one lost libel action felt confident enough to publish it.