The second potential subject of investigation for perjury would appear to be Douglas Wight, a News of the World (NotW) journalist. Indeed STV have indicated he is a main focus of the Strathclyde Police inquiry. Mr Wight had previously given evidence in the Court of Session action for defamation brought by Mr Sheridan regarding the NotW’s allegations about him.
As before, I thank the diligent James Doleman for his Sheridan Trial blog, found at http://sheridantrial.blogspot.com . Mr Doleman has also produced a short and to the point piece regarding this very issue, with links directly to the relevant records of Mr Wight’s evidence and this can be found at http://bit.ly/pyXmJZ .
Any errors in analysis are mine. I should also say that, although I have not seen any formal statement by or on behalf of Mr Wight, I am sure his position will be that he is innocent of any charges which might be brought. Against that background, what of his evidence?
Mr Wight formally appeared as a Crown witness in November 2010, being called as such as a matter of courtesy to the defence. This meant that once Mr Wight had confirmed his name, address, age and occupation, Mr Sheridan took up his cross-examination immediately. If Mr Sheridan had not wanted him to give evidence, then the Crown would not have called him at all. This has less of a bearing on any possible perjury case against Mr Wight, but limits the value to Mr Sheridan in his appeal in the event that Mr Wight was found to have given perjured evidence.
Bearing in mind the focus on phone hacking, illegal investigative techniques and alleged payments to police officers, we are able, I think, to leave out of consideration as regards alleged perjury much of Mr Wight’s evidence where these matters were not raised. Unless News International have presented the police with clear proof re these extraneous matters, it is highly unlikely they form the basis for the present investigation.
Mr Wight was questioned extensively about the story he had written for the NotW alleging Mr Sheridan had had an affair with a Ms McGuire.
He was also asked about his dealings with Ms Anne Colvin, in connection with the alleged “Moat House” incident. Indeed, in connection with that Mr Wight accepted that he had given incorrect evidence in the earlier case regarding payments by the NotW to Ms Colvin and her friend. Bearing in mind that he admitted this mistake at the trial in November 2010, I suggest it is unlikely that that now forms the basis for a perjury investigation against him.
In addition, Mr Wight’s evidence re his history and role in the NotW does not seem relevant to recent developments.
His relevant evidence for present purposes relates to the NotW’s “Dark Side”, and especially dealings with investigators such as Steve Whittamore.
The “Dark Side”
Mr Sheridan began by his questioning by asking Mr Wight if it would be fair to describe him as gatekeeper for “the dark side”. Mr Wight disagreed, and asked whether Mr Sheridan mean the question literally, and was enquiring into his status as a Jedi Knight.
Mr Wight was asked whether it was part of his job to break the law. Interestingly the initial reply was that this was “not strictly true” but Mr Wight stated that he did not accept it to be true when Mr Sheridan repeated the question.
Mr Sheridan asked whether the NotW was a newspaper that regarded itself as being above the law and that could make payments to people to remain quiet about illegal activities. Mr Wight responded that he was not aware of any payment for illegal activities.
Mr Wight was, at the time, Scottish News Editor for the NotW. Would he have been aware of “illegal” payments, such as those alleged to have been made to the police? If so, would he have been aware they were illegal. Whilst ignorance of the various laws regarding illegal payments to the police might not be a successful defence to a charge under these rules, a statement which turns out to be legally wrong, but which the witness believes, cannot be proved to be perjured, unless there is clear evidence from elsewhere that the witness did know what he said was wrong. There might be such a “smoking gun” in the information now in the hands of the police, but it would be surprising if such had appeared so quickly.
Mr Sheridan asked whether there was a culture of private and confidential cash payments at News of the World. Mr Wight accepted that cash payments were indeed made, but that there was a note of every one paid. Mr Sheridan then referred to the NotW’s “Sheridan Costs” document dated 27 June 2007, consisting of a table of payments, many redacted by the commissioner appointed previously by the court. Mr Sheridan drew Mr Wight to two entries labelled “Private and Confidential cash payment” for £1,000 and £1,500, which Mr Wight was unable to explain, then another two entries with his name against them, one for around £1,600 and the other for £2,173 labelled accommodation. Mr Wight stated these pertained to his three week stay in Scotland around the 2006 trial, and also included Ms McGuire’s expenses, adding that cash payments were very rarely paid in Scotland. Mr Sheridan then drew attention to records of three cash payments from August 2006 totalling £2,500 attached to the “Sheridan Costs” document, with Mr Wight pointing out that these were dated after he had moved to London, and stated these were not evidence of a culture of cash payments.
If the accusation is that these payments were in fact for matters other than that stated by Mr Wight, then one can see, if there is sufficient evidence of that, difficulties as regards perjury for him. However Mr Wight, as with Mr Coulson, has the advantage of not having been questioned by a lawyer. The issues which might otherwise have been followed through, and on which the witness might have been committed to an answer, were left hanging in the air. In fact, evidence that these cash payments went elsewhere than to the parties named by Mr Wight might give rise to a fraud case, rather than one of perjury. It is not, in all but the most extreme of circumstances, perjury to be unable to offer an explanation or answer to a question. It can, in certain circumstances, be prevarication, but that would be dealt with by the judge in the course of the trial. There is no suggestion here that Mr Wight was warned as regards prevarication.
Finally in this section, does Mr Wight face problems in denying there was a “culture of cash payments”? That is such a subjective question that I can’t see how that can found any perjury case. One may think there is such a culture, another might not. Differences of opinion do not constitute perjury.
Private Investigators and Steve Whittamore
Mr Sheridan asked Mr Wight about the NotW’s use of Private Investigators. Mr Wight explained that they were used for tracing people, carrying out occupancy checks, accessing company records, and the like but that in the case of Tommy Sheridan had only ever used one to trace Duncan Rowan. (Mr Rowan was a former Scottish Socialist Party official).
As the questioning continued, as referred to below, it becomes apparent that the allegation is that Mr Whittamore was used by the NotW for inquiries into Mr Sheridan. Here, as in the case of Mr Coulson, the precise terms of the question and answer are vital. Was Mr Wight categorical that only one investigator was used? Can it be shown Mr Whittamore was instructed by NotW? Would Mr Wight have known this?
Mr Sheridan then asked specifically about Stephen Whittamore. Mr Wight admitted using his services as he provided information that could help move stories on. Mr Wight could not recall who had originally passed him the name of Mr Whittamore, but denied that it was Andy Coulson as he was not at the NotW at the time, and that it probably wasn’t Greg Miskiw either. Mr Sheridan asked what Mr Wight knew of Mr Whittamore now. Mr Wight responded that he knew Mr Whittamore had been prosecuted for accessing data in breach of the Data Protection Act.
Could there be any difficulty for Mr Wight here? It seems unlikely. Even if he had got the name from Mr Coulson, for example, the particular issue, subject of course to what else might be alleged, is not really relevant to the case. Whilst witnesses swear to tell the truth about all matters, big and small, it would be highly unlikely that perjury case in respect of a side issue like this would be pursued.
Mr Sheridan asked Mr Wight about the “blue book” which was found by police in Mr Whittamore’s home. This book listed, according to Mr Sheridan, requests for “illegal services” by various journalists. There was then a discussion as to whether Mr Wight’s name was in the book 17 times or 70 times. Mr Sheridan referred Mr Wight to a “league table” of users of Mr Whittamore’s services. Mr Wight stated that the News of the World was not at the top. Mr Sheridan asked if Mr Wight himself was “high on league table”, to which Mr Wight replied that he was “convinced I’m at the lower end of scale“. Mr Sheridan then put it to him that in fact he was third on the list of journalists who used Mr Whittamore. Mr Wight disagreed, saying that this was “preposterous”, as he had checked with the newspaper accounts department previously and there had only been 17 requests of which only 10 were paid.
Does it harm Mr Wight if he ranks high on this “league table”? I think not. It was not suggested, as I understand it, that he had controlled the table or indeed that he had had any access to it. Even if he was completely in the wrong about his evidence, this seems again a side issue, irrelevant to the case as a whole and therefore not appropriate to hang a perjury case upon. He agreed that there were 17 “referrals” to Mr Whittamore, so even if it was actually 70, I can’t see how that fits the definition of perjury.
Mr Sheridan then asked Mr Wight how the paper had traced Anne Colvin, as she had phoned the NotW under a false name and given an anonymous tip off but then one week later Mr Wight had arrived at her home address, supposedly telling her “believe me if we want you we can find you”. Mr Wight denied using Mr Whittamore’s services after 2002 and claimed he had found Ms Colvin’s address by searching the internet, found that the mobile number he had was associated with a garage and that the garage had only one female director. He had then went to the premises, got Ms Colvin’s address and then went to her home.
Here Mr Wight advances a clear scenario in response to a question. If it could be proved, by corroborated evidence, that Mr Whittamore had been instrumental in getting Ms Colvin’s details, and that Mr Wight’s evidence was fabricated to hide this, then this would clearly be worthy of investigation as regards prosecution. However, and as before, is it realistic to assume that the information recently in the hands of the Metropolitan Police has provided a lead on this matter? Who, other than the police and prosecuting authorities, knows at this stage? I think it unlikely.
So where does this leave us? On the premise that I have not a verbatim transcript of Mr Wight’s evidence, and I do not know what the police or Crown Office have by way of evidence, can any conclusions be formed?
To my eyes, there seems to be little or nothing in the evidence I have analysed here which might give rise to proceedings against him.
In fact, it was in his other evidence, which I have omitted for reasons stated above, that there was more scope for perjured evidence to have been given. Specific questions were asked about specific events involving specific people, and specific answers were given. If these were incorrect, they would be more likely to form the basis for investigation, but unless it is purely a coincidence that the Crown Office raised matters this week, I can only foresee that it is the issues mentioned at the head of this article which are relevant.
One can, with hindsight, imagine a string of questions about the NotW’s investigative and financial practices which could have been asked and which would have made Mr Wight’s position far more clear.
However, it is questionable how much of this would have been relevant to Mr Sheridan’s trial. Whilst both Mr Prentice QC, the Prosecutor, and Lord Bracadale, the Judge, gave Mr Sheridan considerable lee-way to pursue lines of enquiry which, if put forward by Counsel for Mr Sheridan rather than by him as a party litigant, would undoubtedly have been successfully objected to, the court still did not permit Mr Sheridan to go completely off the topic of the case, despite his efforts to do so.
On what is publicly available now, there seems little chance of Mr Wight facing proceedings for perjury in connection with this case. If he is implicated in other matters now being investigated, such as involvement in phone hacking etc, then that is a question for another day.