It’s my party and I’ll lie if I want to

Review – Downfall: The Tommy Sheridan Story, by Alan McCombes (2012)

downfall“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent”, said Arthur Doyle. This is demonstrated in the life of Tommy Sheridan, which indeed surpass fiction in its oddity. Sheridan’s mastery of manipulation blurs the line of reality; hence, in his solitary mind, he invented an alternative universe where he’s the victim of a conniving conspiracy.

Downfall reveals Sheridan’s sociopathic personality and deceitful political career from the making of one of Scotland’s most renowned politicians, when he led the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) to become one of Europe’s most successful far-left parties. His 2004 libel suit against News of the World (NoW) for exposing his sexual double life effectively ended his career when his judicial battle turned into a slandering crusade against his former political comrades and friends, while shredding the SSP in the process.

A political sex scandal in Tabloid Heartland, there’s ostensibly nothing more under the sun here… Except that there’s nothing conventional about the Sheridan tale, which consists of more twists and turns than the combined Sherlock Holmes stories. Told by Alan McCombes, Sheridan’s former close friend and political ally, we get an inside look into what superficially appears as an inflated sex scandal but truly is a voyage “into the dark corner of the human psyche”.

McCombes’ account is not really about the preceding events and destructive aftermath of Sheridan’s libel suit against the Murdoch-owned media outlet, but sheridan’s political messiah complex, and the resulting personal and political crisis. The judicial basis for Sheridan’s libel suit, moreover, relates to the essence of free speech in the land of tabloid noise.

SSP’s major breakthrough in the 2003 election landed them five MSPs plus Sheridan, their parliamentary representative since 1998. The socialist frenzy had hardly appeased when NoW sex columnist Anvar Khan depicted her sex club visits with an then unidentified MSP, headlined “Married MSP Is Spanking Swinger.” The revelation of Sheridan’s addiction to “voyeuristic and exhibitionist sex” severely contrasted his carefully crafted image as a “clean-cut family man”. Just before Khan’s story broke, Mrs. Gail Sheridan pride Daily Mail’s front page announcing her pregnancy. Now Scots were served a lively mix of tabloid accounts of Mr. Sheridan’s numerous affairs, frequent visits to sex clubs, and orgies with his brother-in-law.

The perverted fun, though, begins when Sheridan, despite having confessed to the tabloid reports to twenty-two party executives, insisted on not merely repudiating the claims but on fighting “a legal battle to disprove the truth”. As McCombes warned, for the party to back Sheridan’s lies in public and in court would likely mean its destruction. For Sheridan this was personal betrayal. He thus built his spectacular legal defense on labeling his former political partners “liars, rats and scabs” who were “jealous rivals” seeking to remove him as leader – all for the crime of not committing perjury on Sheridan’s behalf. The corporate media, meanwhile, was labelled a puppet for capitalist interests (and even the MI6(!), whose aim was to destroy Sheridan humanitarian political project.

The lengthy trial – turned appeal after Sheridan initial deformation victory – finally ended when Sheridan was sentenced to three years imprisonment in 2010 for committing perjury, causing his political demise.

By then he’d already divided the far-left movement, which lost 90 % of its electoral support in the upcoming elections from its 2003 peak. Sheridan’s rupture party Solidarity became similarly irrelevant.

Downfall isn’t a story Sheridan’s sexual conduct, but his obsession to save his deceitful power and reputation, knowingly letting his life-long political project crash and burn for the sake of saving himself. He had no qualms with slandering his former allies, accusing them of falsifying evidence and forging documents, and for publicly labeling his mistresses as “mentally insane opportunists”.

As part of his media showmanship, Sheridan had portrayed himself as the very high pillar of integrity himself, who never hesitated calling for legal actions for fellow politicians’ minor offenses. He groomed the media just as ardently as he groomed his family, friends, and party members.

Sheridan’s “cult of personality” is thoroughly exposed as McCombes asks, “had he been corrupted by fame and power? Or had he just used the cause of socialism to achieve fame and power?” Sheridan’s addiction to the limelight certainly explains parts of his behavior, such as him joining Celebrity Big Brother after his first fraudulent deformation victory.

The events leading up to his libel suit themselves resemble an incarnation of a reality TV-show with Bret Easton Ellis as creative director. Sheridan is no Bateman spin-off but a self-declared “man of the people”. Politics, though, is in many ways the intellectual counterpart of reality television, with the tabloids serving as faithful intermediates, laughably honest yet obscurely misleading at the same time.

The story of Sheridan’s sheepish following begins amidst the wave socialist protests during Thatcher’s heyday. McCombes and Sheridan, both radicals in the Scottish Militant Labour, met on the streets of Pollok, Glasgow during the Poll Tax Riots. Sheridan’s orator talents quickly made him a “star performer” in these circles, initiating a period when “Scottish Socialism came to be personified … by one man”. He was a natural choice of leader in the attempt to establish a unified Scottish socialist alliance rising above the “hostile tribes” that had characterized the far-left.

Downfall gives an intimate view of the development of radical Scottish socialism, which Sheridan’s libel suit ultimately took further behind its meager starting point.

The more under-communicated aspect, though, is the incompetence of the party leadership in response to Sheridan’s behavior. Downfall, though surely not its intention, discloses the don’ts of crisis management. SSP executives politely gave “Tommy a chance to reconsider” his strategy of falsely accusing and suing the media for lying, despite knowing this was a “blindfolded march towards the edge of the cliff”. While the party had his back, Sheridan exploited “his network of media contacts to spread “malevolent lies” in return. McCombes passive warnings – “people will forgive sexual misconduct but not the leader of a party lying and suing about it” – doesn’t exactly affirms a resoluteness or integrity.

Sheridan’s deformation suit against NoW  ultimately revolves around free speech. Britain is on net lucky to have a vicious press. I might be compensational in my satisfaction with British tabloids’ humiliations, considering that the Norway’s press corps are more innocent lambs than those found in William Blake’s poems.

The trial discloses the jury’s limited understanding of the importance of unpopular freedoms in preserving a free society, and therefore the downside of giving commons the authority to reining in the dogs. Indeed, Sheridan won his first fraudulent libel suit, in spite of clear evidence, partly due to the jury’s own hostility toward the tabloid press.

The rule of law is equally important to prove one’s innocent as it is to prove one’s guilt. Oftentimes, as the Sheridan trial illustrates, the threat of being sued might itself be an infringement of freedom. In their stories about Sheridan, NoW exercised their right to free speech by exposing Sheridan’s affairs, which is legal insofar as the accusation is true. Legally, though, the burden of proof rests solely on NoW to prove their tabloid stories. In this case, however, it is Sheridan who sought to limit the free speech of NoW; hence, there’s a strong argument that the plaintiff should have an equal responsibility to provide evidence that the claims are false. To preserve free speech, even for the tabloid dogs and all.

Ultimately Sheridan’s extreme personality  – and strange events – resemble absurdist fiction, which makes the story all the more compelling.  Downfall drags the reader into a political universe with people in them, and those two elements have a peculiar relationship.

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