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Taste and decency

Pat Stevenson | 15:15 UK time, Tuesday, 18 July 2006

Nipple clamps, group sex and swingers' clubs. Grist to the tabloids' mill perhaps, but the BBC?

BBC Radio Scotland logoCovering Tommy Sheridan's defamation action against the News of the World was always going to be a challenge in terms of taste and decency.

The Scottish Socialist MSP is fighting a series of claims made in the newspaper about his sex life. Allegations that he denies but the paper contends are "substantially true".

The first question, given the likely content of the evidence - should we be covering the court proceedings at all? Tommy Sheridan is arguably one of only a few Members of the Scottish Parliament who people in the street would recognise. His high profile stems from his career in challenging the establishment. He was jailed for his actions in fighting the poll tax and taking part in blockades at Faslane nuclear submarine base. He was the founder member of the Scottish Socialist Party, and as leader, raised its profile to such an extent in the first term of the Scottish Parliament that the party picked up five additional seats in the 2003 elections.

Tommy SheridanEighteen months ago his resignation from the leadership topped the news. So, a major character in Scottish politics, and as an editor a case I think we should be covering. Having made that decision, how much detail should we broadcast? Radio literally has a captive audience of children. Strapped in the backseat of a car, kids are tuned into whatever their parents are listening to.

As a parent I'm aware of the kind of questions that are asked. And a ten year old probably isn't going to buy the line "Mr Sheridan was just having a sleepover". But as a broadcaster it is the BBC's legal and editorial duty to report a case both fairly and accurately, both from a defamation and contempt point of view. "Enough" pled one text to the programme, but leaving out large chunks of evidence could leave us in legal difficulties.

That's not to say every detail is picked over. In practical terms, radio just hasn't got the time to go into the minutiae in the same way as newspapers. I did make the decision not to broadcast the word "b****rd" when a witness swore at an advocate during the case. Why? It wasn't part of the evidence and so I thought it could be left out. The word has however been used in the programme before (John Major's outburst of frustration over eurosceptics, for example). But every story throws up different challenges and every decision can be challenged. That's what being an editor is about.

And we did decide not to use the nipple clamps.


I think when it comes to Tommy Sheridan most people could not care less; this topic is not a talking point in the street. The socialists are not that well liked outside of the student circle and I find the whole matter boring. I don't really care whether the accusations are true or not.

Such is the way of things in the Scottish Parliment, everything that happens in it and that is connected with it is boring. I live in Scotland, but I don't watch Holyrood PMQs, or heaven forbid anything lesser than that. It's mostly a bunch of ex-councillors no charisma and this Sheridan incident just makes me want to doze off.

  • 2.
  • At 12:11 AM on 19 Jul 2006,
  • Bethia wrote:

Could it not be spoken about in a vague manner, such as telling the viewer/listener/reader that Sheridan is accused of many sexual (mis)conducts but is defending his case, despite there being evidence that some of the accusations are true?

If someone wanted to hear more they could always pick up a newspaper, but it also saves the ears of those who would find it indecent.

  • 3.
  • At 09:52 AM on 19 Jul 2006,
  • Graeme Wilson wrote:

I can't understand why BBC Scotland continues to refer to this as "allegations concerning Mr Sheridan's private life" - there is nothing that is private about it now.

  • 4.
  • At 10:20 AM on 19 Jul 2006,
  • Paul wrote:

What I don't understand is why the BBC are spending so much air time on the ex-Leader of a minority party in Scotland.

Don't the BBC have a big enough budget to go out and find more appropriate stories?

  • 5.
  • At 11:56 AM on 19 Jul 2006,
  • Simon Cunningham wrote:

Poor Dave, Inappropriate Paul.
Missing the point of this blog.

This is not about whether or not this case should be covered - it is!

The question of censorship is a tricky one in relation to a court case. I think that generally the media (with the exception of the redtops - one of which is at the centre of the case after all) have handled this quite well. It is obviously sensitive and sensational in nature. But their reporting has been couched in responsible lanuguage. And seems a fair account of the proceedings.

As to the rights and wrongs of the prominence of the story in newscasts - well there is a relevance to Scottish politics in general and at the end of the day it is the Summer silly season.

  • 6.
  • At 12:57 PM on 19 Jul 2006,
  • Iain wrote:

If details are going to be given (if necessary) could you not give the details after the 9.00pm watershed and just give a brief outline of the days proceedings in earlier broadcasts.

I actually turned the volume down last night when the news was on (afetr 10.00pm )as I don't want to hear all the gory details and do not think it is worthy of headline news

Please give us a break

  • 7.
  • At 02:38 PM on 20 Jul 2006,
  • Magyar Hettie wrote:

I just stopped watching Reporting Scotland, as half of it's been taken up by the Sheridan affair and the rest is still about murders in Glasgow...

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