An MSP has failed in an attempt to sue the Daily Record for defamation over an interview it ran with former Scottish Socialist Party leader Tommy Sheridan in which she was described as a “political scab”.
Frances Curran, a member of the Scottish Socialist Party, sued the newspaper after it printed four pages of articles on Monday August 7, 2006, under the front-page headline: “I’ll destroy the scabs who tried to ruin me. Tommy vows to win back leadership of Scottish Socialists.”
The coverage inside the newspaper included photographs of Ms Curran and three other SSP MSPs with the word “scab” printed over their faces.
The previous Friday a jury had awarded Mr Sheridan £200,000 in libel damages against the News of the World, which had carried stories about his private life.
The Daily Record had quoted Mr Sheridan as referring to “political scabs” who he said had tried to undermine him.
The newspaper applied for the case to be dismissed on the grounds that Ms Curran had failed to plead any defamatory meaning, and that the coverage was protected by qualified privilege as it amounted to a reply by Mr Sheridan to an attack on him by Ms Curran and two other Scottish Socialist Party MSPs who had issued a press release immediately after his libel case victory accusing him of having lied during the trial.
The other two – Rosie Kane and Carolyn Leckie – had testified at the trial, although Ms Curran had not.
The newspaper’s arguments were accepted by Morag Wise QC, sitting as a Temporary Judge in the Outer House of the Court of Session, in a decision on March 26.
Ms Wise said it was clear than in considering whether an article was defamatory, it had to be read as a whole – an eye catching headline with photographs was not enough to found a claim for defamation when the text as a whole was not defamatory.
In addition, greater latitude was allowed in relation to criticisms of those holding public office.
“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,” she said.
The tenor of the article was a sharp criticism of the behaviour of Ms Curran – and others – in the political scene in which she and Mr Sheridan were participating at that time.
“The term ‘scab’ is given context in the written text where it is clear that what Mr Sheridan was complaining of was what he saw as a betrayal by his former political allies. There are particular passages within the article that explain the context,” the judge said.
The term “scab” could not be taken literally in this context and could only be understood in the political context in which it was used.
There was no suggestion in the article that Ms Curran was being accused of personal immorality or base motives.
“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,” Ms Wise said.
“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.
“I have taken into account also the greater latitude permitted in relation to criticism of the pursuer given the public office that she held.”
It was important to distinguish between the disloyal conduct complained of in the article and any imputation of dishonesty – Ms Curran was being criticised for being part of a group within the party who were trying to undermine Mr Sheridan politically, the judge said, adding: “What matters is that the rift within the political party in question was a very public matter in which the pursuer and others could legitimately be exposed to criticism.”
The article did not amount to defamation of Ms Curran.
The judge went on: “In any event, even if some of the terms used in the article could be regarded as defamatory, I consider that the article can be characterised as a fair retort to an attack on Mr Sheridan by, amongst others, the pursuer.
“Accordingly, qualified privilege attached to it.”
On the same day that the jury in the libel trial found for Mr Sheridan, Ms Curran and two MSPs who testified at the jury trial issued their press release, saying that they had not wanted to be involved in the court case, that it should never have been initiated, and alleging that he had not told the truth in his defamation action and also had, through paranoia, imagined a plot by fellow MSPs to undermine him.
The first part of the attack was not addressed in the article published immediately after the press release, the judge said.
“What the Daily Record article does do is respond vociferously to the suggestion that the plot is imagined,” the judge said.
“The response being made to the statement seems to be to reiterate the contention that there was a plot, a ‘cabal’ of enemies of Mr Sheridan within the party and to denounce that faction as ‘political scabs’.
“In what appears to have been a highly charged atmosphere of allegations and counter allegations between Mr Sheridan and his former political allies, it seems to me that the article complained of falls easily within the privilege of fair retort,” the judge said.
“The article is restricted to a criticism of those who asserted that there was no plot and that Mr Sheridan was in the wrong. I do not consider that the article goes beyond the privilege by making fresh criticisms of a defamatory nature.
“I cannot accept the submission that walking into court to give evidence with a smile has any defamatory innuendo regardless of whether or not it was accurate. There is some amplification in the retort but nothing in the cases cited to me suggests that the retort must be restricted to a bare denial without emphasis or clarification.”