27 March 2010

No fish tea for pre-Raphaelite fishwife...

In an unguarded jocular moment, I once heard David McLetchie MSP suggest that the whole female parliamentary membership of the Scottish Socialist Party resembled “pre-Raphaelite fishwives”. This prompted much unctuous guffawing from certain quarters of his little audience, including, as I recall, someone who now sits beside McLetchie on Holyrood’s Tory benches. Whether McLetchie’s mind was dominated Frances Curran or another member of the delegation - Rosie Kane perhaps, or Carloyn Leckie - I couldn’t say. Since the people brutally excised the Scottish Socialists from Holyrood in 2007, these fierce socialist ladies have rather passed out of public consciousness. That, in part, might explain how little attention has been paid in the Scots blogosphere to a recent judgement of the Court of Session, Frances Curran v. Scottish Daily Record and Sunday Mail Ltd. Yet more fall out from the legal gift that keeps on giving: Tommy Sheridan’s defamation action of 2006 and the coinciding implosion of the SSP.

The former MSP sued the paper for defamation on the basis of four articles appearing in the paper on the 7th of August 2006. The material which Curran found objectionable was contained in an interview with Tommy Sheridan, post his victory in his defamation action against the News of the World, pre his indictment for perjury to secure that victory. In the articles, Sheridan referred to his fellow socialists (who had rendered court testimony incompatible with his own, evidence which will no doubt be the basis of Sheridan's still impending trial) as both plain “scabs”, “political scabs”, “collaborators with the enemy”, “so-called socialists” and “political blackmailers trying to hold their party to ransom”. Curran took exception to this, and brought an action against the publisher arguing that the way she was characterised “tended to lower [her] in the estimation of right thinking members of society generally”. She was on the legal back foot, however, her counsel pressing for proof before answer, while the legal representatives of the paper were angling for full dismissal of her action. Morag Wise QC, sitting as a Temporary Judge in the Court of Session (only a matter of time, I trust, till she swells the female ranks of the bench more permanently…) reiterated not only that…

“…greater latitude in relation to criticisms of those holding public office is allowed. Accordingly it is only where private character is attacked or where there is a suggestion of base or indirect motives that criticisms of those holding public office might give rise to a relevant claim for defamation.” [Para 28]

But went on to determine that her judicial understanding of the defamatory quality, if any, of broad ‘scabbery’ required the term to be firmly located in the discursive context of the case and that the …

“… focus of the article is the question of the leadership of a political party and the ability or inability of some of its members to work with each other. Accordingly I do not consider that this was an attack on the private character of the pursuer but rather on her political decisions and political loyalties. I have considered whether the article, taken as a whole, would tend to lower the pursuer in the estimation of right thinking members of society generally, or be likely to affect her adversely in the estimation of reasonable people generally.

Again, I do not consider that it would have that effect. Right thinking members of society are well able to read an article of this sort and see it as no more than a robust criticism of the pursuer as a former colleague and ally of Mr Sheridan. The reference to the pursuer as a "scab" simply has no context without the detail given of the political plot alleged by Mr Sheridan and the references to collaboration with "the enemy" namely Newsgroup Newspapers Limited.”

As such, Wise determined pretty robustly that Curran’s allegations of defamation were not well founded, dismissing her case. I'm no friend of using courts as another means of doing our politics, nor do I much care for a resort to the heavy instruments of defamation to vindicate senses of personal injury. If were up to me, an independent Scotland would ratchet up its protection of free speech to American-inspired levels, and to hell with contumelious actions, with their drawn po-faces. As the Curran case shows, wise men and women should never hop on the barge named 'defamation, libel and slander'. Although you may cross your extremities for an honest wind, more often than not, this particular craft will ferry its tender cargo crashingly into the shoals of defeat, or in other cases, outright disaster and sinkage.


  1. The SSP women have gone on to find jobs in the public sector - Frances is a lecturer in social care at a FE college, Carolyn works for Women's Aid and Rosie is a support worker is a mental health charity. Frances continues to be the Co-Spokesperson for the SSP. The media choose to show an interest.

    It is quite interesting in your blog piece as you quite rightly put the insults in speech marks. The Daily Record did not they attributed the insults not just quote from Mr Sheridan.

    What has Frances to loose if she looses the case? Nothing much but if she wins then the Daily record gets a swipe on the snout for being so lairy. I wish her all the best!

  2. There was an amendment to the petition on 1st March 2011 at the Court of Session and will be heard by another judge.

  3. Ms Chief,

    Thanks for this update on a somewhat ancient tale. I assume that the verdict in H.M. Advocate v. Sheridan has something to do with this case being revitalised?

  4. In fairness I think it took this long for the appeal. At the hearing last week the plea was to be amended that Sheridan was a convicted perjurer and that a different judge should hear it and that there were mistakes in the law as it appeared that Wise seemed to follow that Frances was suing Mr Sheridan rather than the Daily Record. The Daily Record were against the above however it went in Frances' legal teams way.

    Will be interesting to know what will happen :-o

  5. Quite so! Will have to keep an eye out for the judgment.