SSP says it will not expel tape man George McNeilage
Peter Manson reports on the latest developments in the Tommy Sheridan saga
George McNeilage, the man who says he secretly taped Tommy Sheridan 'confessing all' might or might not have been paid £20,000 by the News of the World. But whether or not he got the modern equivalent of thirty pieces of silver is hardly the point.
McNeilage is a member of the Scottish Socialist Party and a founder of its United Left platform. Helping to clear the reputation of Rupert Murdoch's filthy rag, and opening the door for a police perjury investigation into Sheridan and co, is a totally unprincipled way of dealing with differences in the workers' movement and on the left. It is to cross class lines.
If the SSP wants to be regarded as any kind of a principled socialist organisation it must immediately expel him from their ranks. There should certainly be an emergency debate at the SSP conference this weekend and a demand for the full facts to be brought out into the open.
Yet when I spoke to Allan Green, the outgoing national secretary, he told me that taking disciplinary action against McNeilage was "not in our culture". Worse than that, other SSP spokespersons seem to be taking a delight in the latest Sheridan 'revelations' contained in the News of the World. They see it as a vindication. The elementary principle of not using the bosses' media to fight out our differences seems to have escaped them. Indeed they seem to approve of McNeilage's disgraceful action. No wonder some are suggesting that sections of the SSP leadership are collaborating with News International and the state in their anti-Sheridan vendetta.
As everyone knows, last Sunday the News of the World - possibly with the aid of the secret state - resumed its attack on Sheridan, openly calling for him to be jailed for perjury, along with four close supporters.
For the first time, the Sheridan v NOTW case came south of the border in a big way. In England and Wales as well as Scotland, the Murdoch gutter rag led with the story that it had acquired a video of comrade Sheridan allegedly owning up that he had indeed engaged in some of the sexual liaisons the tabloid had accused him of - even though News International, had been forced to pay him £200,000 when Sheridan won his stunning court victory 'disproving' those same allegations.
The paper made what it terms "the most explosive piece of evidence in the history of Scottish defamation trials" publicly accessible - you can hear part of the video soundtrack for a 50p phone call or listen to it for free online (I am sure many Weekly Worker readers will already have done so). The NOTW hopes that the tape will "send Sheridan to jail for perjury - and it is crucial in the police investigation into four of Sheridan's colleagues in the Scottish Socialist Party who swore blind to judge and jury that he had never confessed his sleazy secrets to the executive meeting [of November 9 2004]. If they are found guilty, then party MSP Rosemary Byrne and SSP officials Graeme McIver, Pat Smith and Jock Penman could all be facing a jail sentence in high-profile cases that would cut a huge swathe through Scottish politics" (News of the World October 1).
In his first response comrade Sheridan issued a press release denouncing the tape as a fake and a "concoction". he ended his statement by saying of the NOTW: "I refuse to encourage any further publicity for them. I will continue to fight them politically "¦ They are lying rats who deserve to be confined to their own obnoxious waste "¦ I intend making no further comment on this pathetic pack of lies" (press release, October 2).
Of course, "fight them politically" rather than through the courts was exactly what many on the left - not least the SSP leadership and this paper - had urged comrade Sheridan to do in the first place. True, the claims about his private life had political motives, but they were just about his private life - of no concern to anyone but comrade Sheridan himself, his family and close associates. In 2004 he could have refused to make "further comment on this pathetic pack of lies" (irrespective of how accurate that description is).
Instead he recklessly launched his defamation case with the sole purpose of defending his carefully crafted reputation as a clean-living family man. A reputation the SSP cultivated and promoted. Sheridan subsequently damned 11 SSP EC members as traitors and liars simply for maintaining in court that the minutes of their November 9 2004 meeting were accurate and through his actions caused the devastating and unprincipled split leading to two almost identical left nationalist formations in Scotland - the SSP and Sheridan's breakaway: Solidarity - Scotland's Socialist Movement.
But, after all that had happened, how could comrade Sheridan keep quiet in the face of the latest NOTW claims? Against all the odds he won his defamation case and yet News International continues to make the same allegations - and more (unusually there had been no request during the trial for an injunction preventing any repetition). This time he was also accused of criminal behaviour. So Sheridan has no choice but to try and face News International down.
His vow of silence lasted less than a day. At the October 3 launch of Solidarity in Dundee comrade Sheridan used up most of his address to rubbish the NOTW video. From the chair Philip Stott, a leading member of the Committee for a Workers' International in Scotland, made a futile attempt to keep the meeting focussed on 'politics' (the CWI's economistic version). He declared that the press conference had been called "to discuss issues like the level of council tax in this city".
But comrade Sheridan was having none of it. The launch of Solidarity was the "background to the latest assault by the Murdoch press on me and our political party". They "fear what we stand for" - which is why they had "invented, concocted and unleashed" this "dodgy" tape. He claimed he had never even been to McNeilage's house - a former close friend and one of the best men at his wedding. Regarding the tape, Sheridan says: "I saw with my own eyes when we made party political broadcasts what we can do with computer graphics as far as voices are concerned."
In response to questions he asserted that the tape had been "spliced". A NOTW spokesperson laughed this off, saying it would be a simple matter for the police to examine the original.
The NOTW was not the only one to ridicule Sheridan's claim. A statement from Frances Curran, SSP MSP for the West of Scotland, is currently the lead feature on the SSP website. After calling on him, together with fellow Solidarity defector Rosemary Byrne, to resign as MSPs, she writes: "Anyone who knows Tommy and listens to the tape will find his claims that it is a fake frankly laughable. It joins the long list of Tommy's fantasy claims about plots, fake minutes and all the other tall tales told over the summer "¦ The tape clearly vindicates the truthfulness of the evidence given by the 11 SSP witnesses and the stand taken by the party to tell the truth in court" ('Sheridan and Byrne must resign as MSPs', www.scottishsocialistparty.org).
Interestingly the Socialist Workers Party (its members in Scotland, like those of the CWI, followed comrade Sheridan out of the SSP into Solidarity) also seems to believe the tape is genuine. The SWP does not even mention Tommy's comments that it is a fake: "The Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid has purchased a secretly filmed video from a personal friend of Sheridan, George McNeilage. At the time the video was made, McNeilage was a fellow member of the Scottish Socialist Party" (Socialist Worker October 7).
One of comrade Sheridan's allegations should not, however, be lightly dismissed. That is the claim of possible MI5 involvement in this whole business (although, unfortunately, SSP convenor Colin Fox did reject this). Back in 2003/04 the SSP looked more than capable of winning enough votes to cost Labour several seats in Scotland and under such circumstances it is part of the job description of the 'security services' to dish the dirt on fringe politicians regarded as a threat. After all, MI5 routinely keeps itself informed about such politicians' private lives and sometimes helps bring embarrassing details into the public domain.
There is certainly something questionable about McNeilage's claim that he shot the secret video to keep his comrades in Pollok SSP branch informed: "Tommy would only agree to meet me, but they had a right to know what he was saying." Did he play it to the Pollock branch? Did others know of the existence of the tape? Did anyone in the leadership encourage him to go to the NOTW?
Either way, the fact he handed the tape over to the NOTW is nothing short of a disgrace. Nevertheless, he is only the latest 'socialist' in the SSP saga to be paid by the muck-raking press for stabbing their 'comrades' in the back. (The News of the World website, after reproducing McNeilage's excuses, asks: "Do you want to sell a story or picture?" Readers are invited to call free, text or email.)
McNeilage, a founder-member of the United Left, is very close to some at the top of the SSP, just as he was once close to Sheridan. Solidarity sources are alleging that it was the SSP, not McNeilage, that approached the NOTW, and that the SSP was also paid.
This is far from impossible. The anger at Sheridan's treatment of his former comrades is understandable. But that does not excuse what amounts to an open celebration (eg, comrade Curran's statement on the SSP website) of the NOTW claims, still less any cooperation in helping the state to secure a perjury conviction.
According to comrade Sheridan, "Those willing to collaborate should hang their heads in shame." They are "enemies of socialism". Quite right. (Although, when it comes to taking money from the tabloids to do down other working class politicians, Sheridan is just as guilty - remember the "Scabs!" front page in the Daily Record?)
The SSP has issued an official statement from comrade Fox vehemently denying any collaboration with News International. It had "no knowledge of or role in the production of this tape", "does not advocate or practise the secret taping of conversations", "never had possession" of the tape or "any involvement" in passing it to the NOTW. It did not and will not "receive a single penny" from "any media company".
But the statement stopped well short of condemning McNeilage's foul action. Comrade Fox's statement concludes: "We believe that events are now rapidly approaching a conclusion "¦. With a perjury investigation now underway, we are confident that the good name of the SSP will be restored 100%." Presumably what he means is that comrade Sheridan and his four supporters will be jailed, and the NOTW will get its £200,000 back (together with its "good name").
All this can only add to the suspicion that, despite the denials, someone as close to the leadership as McNeilage would have confided in at least one or two top comrades.
SSP members gathering for the party's annual conference in Glasgow this weekend have to demand a full and completely honest accounting of this sorry episode.
Whatever we think of Tommy Sheridan's behaviour over the last two years, if he is brought to trial, we would hope that the class instincts of the majority of jurors would prevail, as they clearly did in his defamation case.