Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Sheridan verdict


The SSP may be facing oblivion, and Tommy Sheridan may never fully live down the lurid publicity, but the real losers are the press. The Tommy Sheridan case is more than a salutary lesson for the sensation-seeking News of the Screws - it is a condemnation of an entire industry.
Consider: a mighty news organisation, News International, lines up witness after witness to testify to Tommy Sheridan’s sexual hypocrisy. These range from party members, alleged sexual partners and people who claim to have seen Tommy swinging. The judge instructs the jury that if only one of them is telling the truth, and Sheridan is a hypocrite, then the News of the World is vindicated.
And what happens? The jury discuss it for a couple of hours, dismiss five weeks of testimony and award the largest defamation damages in Scottish legal history to Tommy Sheridan. It was hard not to smile at Tommy’s triumph, even if this case could have serious implications for journalistic freedom.
It was indeed an incredible verdict, though not - as the News of the Screws said - a perverse one. It was a rebuke to an industry which preys on human misery and disclosure; which uses chequebook journalism, spin, sensation, distortion. This has been a long time coming. The public has long disbelieved what newspapers say in print - now they refuse to believe what newspapers say in court, or indeed what witnesses say in court in their defence.
Forget the facts of the case. The jury, in the end, were faced with a moral choice: Did they side with this eccentric, but intensely principled man, Tommy Sheridan, his insanely voted wife and loyal family. Or did they side with people who admitted playing fast and loose with the truth in order to sell newspapers. With so-called journalists who trade in salacious gossip and kiss-and-tell. With fractious and spiteful SSP activists who couldn’t get their story straight about the transactions of their own executive?
Well, surprise surprise, they decided in favour Tommy Sheridan, whatever may or may not have happened in his private life. We will never know what the jury thought about the lurid tales of Tommy's exploits, but I suspect they just didn’t care, so long as Gail didn’t. Their verdict was a vote for family life, honour, personal dignity, privacy and accurate journalism.
The reaction among some in the press has been of amazement and hurt. How could a court dismiss such compelling evidence? How can journalists hope to win cases in future if juries are going to demand such high standards of proof? The insurance companies who ultimately pay the costs of such defamation rulings will look anew at the content of papers - sensing that nothing is safe.
So, this historic ruling could have implications for the freedom of the press, in privacy cases at least. The News of the World and its stablemates are going to have to clean up their act, or face future defamation damages of increasing magnitude. Being able to establish what lawyers call “veritas” - ie having substantial evidence to back up a story - is no longer enough.
Most journalists and lawyers that I spoke to believed that Sheridan would lose the case simply because the News of the World had so many witnesses. But witnesses are no longer enough, it seems. It may seem implausible that all of them lied - but the jury didn’t see why it should believe any of them. Anyone connected with the press is suspect in their eyes.
The Sheridan represents an inversion of the traditional defamation doctrine that you cannot defame someone who has no reputation to defend. That if you blacken a public figure’s image sufficiently, they will not be able to win substantial damages in court. Now, every time a newspaper enters court in any future sex case it is going to have to prove its own reputation, its own integrity. Well, maybe that’s no bad thing.

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