“Tommy who?” people from outside Scotland might well ask. In Scotland, he must be one of our most instantly recognisable personalities.
Tommy “the tan” Sheridan, member of the Scottish Parliament, unofficial champion of the successful Scottish anti-poll tax campaign in the early 1990s, and former leader of the Scottish Socialist party has, for the last few weeks, been involved in “the [Scottish] trial of the decade.” He has sued the tabloid newspaper, The News of the World, for £200,000 damages over various allegations it made about him.
Predictably, the tabloids have focused gleefully on the juicy details – the alleged three-in-a-bath sex romps with a prostitute and another man, alleged affairs with a News of the World journalist and an ex-prostitute/party member (described at the trial as a “bammer with severe mental health problems”), alleged sado-masochism, and alleged attendances at swingers’ clubs.
More seriously, Sheridan’s entire reputation is on the line. He has always presented himself as a “man of the people”, a left-wing icon with impeccable credentials – a sober, married man who has worked tirelessly and selflessly for justice for the worst-off in our society. The News of the World has portrayed him as a hypocritical, champagne-guzzling sex addict who used his position to fulfil his personal lust for power, drugs, and sex.
In addition, his trustworthiness is on the line. When allegations first surfaced, Sheridan claims he told a meeting of his Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) that the allegations were nonsense. But now several members of the SSP claim that Sheridan admitted going to swingers’ clubs, and have produced a minute of the meeting that bears that out. Sheridan claims the minute has been fabricated and some other members of the SSP agree with him.
A leading member of the SSP then told the court that he backed Sheridan’s version of events, but bizarrely went on to say that he would have backed Sheridan even if Sheridan’s version of events had been untrue.
A week or so into the trial came another sensation. Sheridan, “incandescent with rage” (his own words), sacked his legal team, branded them incompetent, and resolved to represent himself in court from then on. The result has been fireworks, no surprise given Sheridan’s fierce oratory reputation, although at one point he also broke down in tears due to the pressures the allegations had put on him.
He has branded the allegations made against him as “a pack of lies”. He’s claimed there were factions within the SSP who wanted to unseat him, and that the right-wing News of the World had run the story because of his own left-wing credentials. He claimed that his political commitments “hardly left time for a secret life of sex Olympics". At the beginning of his defence, Sheridan added, "You will hear evidence of my addiction to Scrabble and sunbeds, not champagne, cocaine and swingers clubs."
In the last few days, a witness has claimed that another senior SSP official, Duncan Rowan, who had an affair with Fiona McGuire (“the bammer” Tommy Sheridan is also accused of having a 4-year affair with), had to move to England due to “death threats” he had received – threats he suspected were made by someone connected to the woman. Rowan had told the News of the World that there was no connection between Sheridan and McGuire, although McGuire then sold her story of an affair with Sheridan for a reported £20,000.
If Sheridan is guilty, he is a prize hypocrite. The case has nothing to do with any moral view on sado-masochistic sex with prostitutes or on fidelity within marriage. It has everything to do with Sheridan’s reputation, a public perception of him as a volatile, passionate stirrer, but nonetheless an honest, what-you-see-is-what-you-get stirrer - a public image that Sheridan himself has taken great care to cultivate over the years.
But if the allegations are false, and he wins the case, I think he deserves far more than £200,000 from the News of the World. Tabloid newspapers get away with far too much mud-raking, but £200,000 will hardly make a dent in Rupert Murdoch’s vast fortune. The tabloids can destroy people’s reputations and effectively get away with it. Mud tends to stick even if allegations are untrue.
Of course, one way to stop the mud-raking is to stop buying the mud. Whether it's true mud or not.
The trial continues.