24 June 2014

Coulson's conviction: Sheridan's release?

Guilty. In the Old Bailey this afternoon, the former editor of the News of the World and David Cameron's media henchperson, Andy Coulson, was convicted of conspiring to hack phones after a lengthy trial. If the immediate influx of hits in recent hours is anything to go by, those with an interest in Scottish politics and a decent medium-term memory are asking one question: surely Coulson's conviction throws Tommy Sheridan's conviction for perjury into doubt?

Remember, Coulson was summoned to Scotland to give evidence in Sheridan's 2010 trial. The Tory spinner was specifically interrogated about his knowledge and participation in unlawful invasions of people's privacy. He denied all knowledge of these nefarious practises, under oath. Surely, some folk are asking, if Coulson has gone down today for committing the very offences he denied in the witness box in the High Court in Glasgow, the safety of Sheridan's conviction must now be doubted? It certainly raises the possibility of further criminal proceedings in Scotland against Coulson for perjury. But is this the critical missing piece of the puzzle which will expunge the word "disgraced" from Sherry's biography?

I really doubt it, for reasons I set out at some length in a couple of blogs back in 2011.  The first - critical - and generally overlooked fact is that the Crown didn't rely on Coulson's evidence to convict Sheridan. Coulson was a defence witness, albeit a hostile one.  He was also a witness unable to speak to any of the charges set out in the prosecution's indictment against Sheridan, which the jury found to have been proven. His questioning formed part of the eccentric, implausible and frequently irrelevant defence case, that the former SSP MSP had been framed in a "wide-ranging" "fit-up".

Go back to the charge sheet. Even if Coulson was lying about his awareness of phones being unlawfully accessed, how is that relevant to an indictment, alleging that you had attended a Mancunian knocking shop for a companionable evening, had a string of affairs, told your former party comrades about doing so, and lied under oath, in Court, in dishonest pursuit of a significant sum of money, about your sojourning, your womenising and your confessions? 

Which brings us onto the point I considered in greater detail in this piece back in 2011. What test will the courts apply, in considering the impact of new evidence on the safety of a conviction? On appeal, the High Court must decide whether there has been a miscarriage of justice. A stringent test applies where an appeal against conviction is founded on new evidence - in this case, that Mr Coulson was a fibbing toad with an expansive knowledge of his paper's illegal invasions of people's answer-machines. The appellant must persuade appeal judges that the new evidence:

"... is not merely relevant but also of such significance that it will be reasonable to conclude that the verdict of the jury, reached in ignorance of its existence, must be regarded as a miscarriage of justice."

In making this assessment, the court must be "satisfied" that the new evidence:

"... is important and of such a kind and quality that it was likely that a reasonable jury properly directed would have found it of material assistance in its consideration of a critical issue at the trial." 

Does Coulson's potentially perjured evidence in Her Majesty's Advocate v Sheridan and Sheridan meet these high tests? Did it relate to the "critical issues" of whether Sheridan took himself off down to Manchester to make the beast with two backs, and whether or not he admitted to his SSP comrades that he had done so, and lied in court about it? I struggle to see that it does. 

I'm sure Sheridan is enjoying a prickle of schadenfreude today at Coulson's expense, their positions having been radically reversed. But his interrogation of Coulson on the stand was a politically astute but legally irrelevant smokescreen, summoned up to deflect from the compelling evidence that he was banged to rights and guilty as charged. It didn't persuade the jury back in December 2010. I'm blowed as to why it should persuade anybody else of his innocence now.


  1. The Sheridan Trial blog was an extraordinary thing - dunno who did it but a remarkable record, comprehensive and fair. At one point Coulson actually winked at Sheridan, a wink of shared complicity I imagine, the sort of sign a crook might exchange with a bent copper. See


    Sheridan did persuade one member of the jury, remember. From the Daily Record: 'In a Facebook posting, she described fellow jurors as "dirty low life b******" and hoped they "choke in their fckn sleep scum bags they are"'

    1. I always wondered what happened to her. Fell entirely off the radar after the press splash about it - I can only assume that the Crown decided not the proceed on contempt grounds. Heaven knows why. Difficult to see how you could fire up facebook and set down a record of your deliberations without violating the 1981 Act.

  2. I believe the author of the trial blog was the estimable James Doleman.

    1. Ah thanks Carol. Kudos to Mr Doleman, that was an impressive record.

  3. Aye, it was James, who has been down south writing up the hacking trial for the Drum. After the verdict came in against Sheridan, I had the privilege to have a chat with him and buy him a bottle of wine. Definitely an impressive achievement (and he avoided going to chokey for contempt too, which is nothing short of a miracle...)