What, allegedly, connects the former Director of Communications at 10 Downing Street, the former leader of the Scottish Socialist Party, the all time home run leader in Major League Baseball, the man hailed as possibly the best pitcher ever to play baseball and one of the leaders of probably the world’s biggest media conglomerates? I hope to answer this conundrum below.
Problems with Perjury Cases
It is probably the case that perjury is the important crime most committed, but least prosecuted.
Perjury, to be clear, is, in the law of Scotland, the making of false statements under oath, the statements having to be competent evidence in the case in which they were made, and material to the subject of the case or investigation. There requires to be proof beyond reasonable doubt that the statement or statements are false and that they are made wilfully and there requires to be evidence from at least two sources.
As Alistair Bonnington, former solicitor for BBC Scotland put it in an article after Tommy Sheridan succeeded in his damages claim against News International in 2006, “Traditionally, we have very few perjury persecutions in Scotland – despite the fact that an application of elementary logic tells you that perjury must be committed every day in almost every court in Scotland in criminal trials.”
Despite this, prosecutions for perjury are remarkably rare, not because it is an unimportant matter, indeed quite the reverse, but because (a) proof beyond reasonable doubt of the charge might be difficult and (b) if an accused person has already been convicted and sentenced, then there might be little or no “public interest” in a further prosecution for perjury. In Scotland the Lord Advocate and Procurator Fiscal prosecute “for the public interest”.
It is far more common to see witnesses, especially in the High Court, punished for contempt for prevarication when, miraculously, all memory of an incident disappears from their mind just as they take the oath in the witness box. Unfortunately, for them, they will often have given a signed statement to the police in the aftermath of the incident, thus rendering their loss of memory less “useful” than it might otherwise have been.
The courts make it clear to witnesses that a wilful failure to answer properly will be met with a couple of hours in the cells “to consider one’s position” and if the witness fails to “purge their contempt” then an appearance before the judge at the case’s conclusion for punishment awaits.
Perjury cases are far rarer, in part because they cannot be dealt with in the same summary way as prevarication.
If suspected perjured evidence results in an acquittal, then a prosecution might be brought, although this would need to be more than an attempt to re-try the original case by other means.
In a civil case, if perjured evidence is advanced to advance a claim, then, depending on the result, the course of justice requires that steps are taken to maintain the dignity of the courts.
It is clearly more serious to invent evidence than simply to answer “yes”, when the true reply is “no”.
HMA V Sheridan
Perjury is a hot topic in Scotland just now. Tommy Sheridan, the charismatic former Scottish Socialist Party leader and former Member of the Scottish Parliament, was successful in 2006 at the Court of Session in Edinburgh in suing News International, publishers of the News of the World (NotW) for defamation in connection with allegations about his private life. News International is part of the Rupert and James Murdoch empire. Sheridan was awarded £200,000 damages by the jury. This was hailed as a triumph for the working man over the evil press barons.
Four years later Mr Sheridan found himself in the dock at the High Court in Glasgow, charged along with his wife with committing perjury in the original trial. After a lengthy hearing, he was found guilty on certain of the charges and sentenced to three years in prison.
Recent publicity suggest that he has been refused leave to appeal against his conviction, but that he is seeking leave from a second panel of judges, as is normal procedure in the “sifting” process.
In July 2011, following upon the tide of allegations about Andy Coulson (Prime Minister Cameron’s former Director of Communications and former NotW editor) and the NotW “hacking” phones, the Crown Office announced that they had asked Strathclyde Police to look into various matters, including the evidence of certain of the witnesses at Tommy Sheridan’s criminal trial.
It is understood that these witnesses are Mr Coulson, Bob Bird, former Scottish Editor of the NotW and Douglas Wight, one of the NotW reporters involved in the reporting of the story. I have commented at length as linked above re each witness’ evidence. My source material is the excellent Sheridan Trial Blog prepared by the indefatigable James Doleman.
As matters stand, no-one has been charged in connection with this matter and all parties mentioned above maintain their innocence.
Mr Sheridan’s cases are exactly the rare proceedings where perjury proceedings are likely.
The jury at the High Court found that Mr Sheridan had lied about certain specific matters in his earlier evidence. It was not simply that he answered “no” when he should have said “yes” but instead that an alternate reality was created by him and put before the court, successfully as it turned out. I suspect that if he had lost his original claim for damages, no prosecution for perjury would have taken place.
As a comparison, Jeffrey Archer, former Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, and best-selling writer, succeeded in his libel claim against the Daily Star in 1987, but when it was suggested that he had asked one of his friends to go along with an “alibi” Archer was creating, he found himself in the dock at the Old Bailey in 2001, and after being convicted of perjury and attempting to pervert the course of justice, he was gaoled for four years.
It is now being suggested that, in light of the scandals surrounding the NotW, phone hacking, payments to police officers and “missing” emails, there might be further perjury charges in connection with the criminal trial of Tommy Sheridan.
Before looking at the issues such a case might raise, I think it is helpful to look across the Atlantic, to the recent perjury trials of two of the most famous baseball players of all time, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Both of them have been tried on charges of perjury and associated offences with differing results.
I make no claim to knowledge of the US system of justice, so have based what I say upon the sterling work of Craig Calcaterra, a former practising attorney, who has escaped from the law courts to be a writer for NBC about baseball (yes, that is jealousy you can hear as you read that). He has written extensively about these cases, most recently at “Hardball Talk” but he wrote at length about them before. Following Bonds’ indictment he analysed the case here.
USA v Barry Bonds
Barry Bonds is the all time leader in home runs in baseball. He passed Babe Ruth and then Hank Aaron. The home run king is a long lauded role in the USA. However, outside San Francisco, where he played for many years, few hold Bonds in affection. He was always a great player but after the excitement of 1998 when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa “saved baseball” by racing all summer to break the single season home run record, and thus achieving nationwide fame, respect and fortune, Bonds decided that being one of the best was not good enough. He needed to be the best.
Various books, including “Game of Shadows” by Jeff Pearlman, allege that Bonds took advantage of the absence of a drug testing programme in baseball to use steroids from the BALCO laboratory to give him even more strength and stamina. Bonds went on hitting home runs at a rate for his age never seen before, till finally he overtook Hank Aaron. In doing so however, he came across as charmless and egotistical, and was disliked, if not hated, by fans all round the US.
But the seeds of Bonds’ downfall had already been sown.
The US government, in attempting to stamp out illegal drug use in sports, had taken great interest in BALCO. The owner, Victor Conte, ended up in gaol, and several of his clients, including former Olympic gold medal athletes, ended up there too, whether for fraud or impeding the investigation. Bonds, as a suspected BALCO client, was called to testify before a grand jury investigating BALCO. His answers were felt to be misleading, vague, obstructive and prevaricating, and he was in due course charged with perjury.
The legal process ground on and on before finally Bonds went to trial this year. He was acquitted of all perjury charges but found guilty of obstruction of justice in connection with the answers he gave to one set of questions.
As Craig Calcaterra identifies, and this has a bearing, I think, in connection with any case against the NotW personnel here, the problem the prosecutors had was that the answers Bonds gave to the Grand Jury were often vague, off the point and rambling. The questioner failed, generally, to pin the witness down with specific questions. Open ended and rhetorical questions seemed to be the order of the day. Some of the questions did not really look like questions at all.
For example, part of the indictment refers to the following Grand Jury exchange.
Q And you weren’t getting this flax seed oil stuff during that period of time [January 2002]?
A: Not that I can recall. Like I say. I could be wrong. But I’m – – I’m – – going from my recollection it was. like. in the 2002 time and 2003 season.
As mentioned above, it is necessary to show that someone is wilfully telling lies to achieve a conviction for perjury. If the questioning is not specific and offers the witness the chance, for example, to ramble down memory lane, or to offer his opinion rather than facts, then pinning a perjury case can be very hard. The logic behind the jury’s verdict in Bonds’ case whereby he was acquitted of perjury but convicted of obstruction of justice seems hard to understand, and indeed his attorneys will try to persuade the judge that the verdict is perverse and to substitute an acquittal on all charges.
It appears, from reading the transcripts of Bonds’ Grand Jury testimony, that the lawyer for the government was perhaps overawed by the fame of the man he was questioning, or expected that he would confess his use of illegal drugs to order. Instead, Bonds told the Grand Jury he did not know what he had taken, and the only person who could do so, his trainer Greg Anderson, pointedly refused to testify despite repeatedly being sent to prison for contempt. Thus, due to the absence of a forensically focused questioning of Bonds, the chances of a perjury conviction were greatly reduced.
The vast majority of baseball fans in the US believe that Bonds used steroids, despite the absence of proof of failed drugs teats etc.
USA V Roger Clemens
Roger Clemens is the pitcher I mentioned above. For over 20 years he was at the top of his game, at an age by the end where very few pitchers remain effective. Throughout his career in Boston, Toronto, Houston and New York Clemens was successful, earning the affection of his team’s fans, and the almost universal dislike of everyone else. Indeed his manner of leaving Boston and Toronto caused him to be alienated from much of his former fan base. However Clemens was hugely successful, driven by a desire to be the best. He won many honours and awards, and was paid a great deal of money.
The US legislature has taken an active interest in the use of performance enhancing drugs (PED’s) in sport, especially baseball. At a previous Congressional hearing, Mark McGwire, who had, as we have seen, broken the single season home run record n 1998, destroyed his reputation by repeatedly stating he was not there to “talk about the past”. The fact that he was there for that purpose led most to believe that he had been a user of PED’s. Rafael Palmeiro, a very successful layer for Baltimore over many years, looked Congress straight in the eyes and stated, complete with pointing finger “Let me start by telling you this: I have never used steroids, period. I don’t know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never.” Within five months he had been suspended for a failed drugs test. His reputation, like that of McGwire was in tatters. Sammy Sosa, the other participant in the home ruin race of 1998 also appeared. He had been born in the Dominican Republic but he had played in the major leagues in the US since 1989, but now, in 2005, he answered questions through his attorney, claiming his English was not good enough. Clearly he wished to make sure he fell in to no traps by answering questions in his second language. However, again, the court of public opinion found strongly against him.
So, having gained a lot of coverage in 2005, the Congressional Committee kept digging.
In 2008 Roger Clemens appeared at Congress on oath, along with his former personal trainer, Brian McNamee. By this stage Clemens had been named by Senator George Mitchell in the report he had compiled into PED use in baseball. McNamee had accused him of steroid use. Clemens had sued McNamee and McNamee counter-sued Clemens.
Clemens, it appeared, insisted on attending Congress to get his message across. He sat before the Committee and denied any illegal use of drugs. McNamee was castigated as a liar and a cheat. Clemens appeared at first to have made his point.
However matters began to unravel soon after. The Committee realised that either Clemens, or McNamee, or indeed both, were lying to them. The committee insisted on an investigation and now, just over three years later, Clemens has appeared in a Washington court room for trial.
As in the Bonds case, the issue is not whether he used PED’s but whether he wilfully lied in saying he did not.
Whilst in Bonds’ case he did not get himself bogged down in detail or specifics, here Clemens was the opposite. He had some things he wanted to say, and therefore he said them. The problem was that lying to Congress is a serious offence. Further investigations took place and Clemens was indicted.
The case started a few weeks ago with jury selection. There appeared to be a greater chance of a conviction, as a result of Clemens having put forward his hypothesis of himself as a non user, than in the Bonds case where he was answering vague or open-ended questions with vague and open-ended answers.
However, on the second day of the trial, which was expected to last for a month, the case collapsed into a mistrial.
The prosecution were bringing in to evidence a video recording of one of the Congressmen at the hearing by playing the tape to the jury. However, he was talking about the evidence of the wife of one of Clemens’ former team-mates, evidence which the judge had already ruled as inadmissible. The tape should have been edited to remove this, and it had not been. The judge had no hesitation in declaring a mistrial and a hearing is due soon to determine if Clemens will again face trial on these charges.
As with Barry Bonds however, prevailing public opinion is that Clemens was a user, whether or not that is actually proved in court.
James Murdoch at the Select Committee
Next we had the pleasure of seeing Rupert Murdoch and his son James appear last week before the Department of Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee of the House of Commons to answer questions about the phone hacking scandal. Here again the weakness of the questioning system may have allowed wilful errors, if there were any, by the Murdochs to go unpunished. I should say, as a preliminary point, that they were not placed on oath, but “Erkine May” the bible of Parliamentary procedure makes it clear that lying to or misleading Parliament can amount to a contempt of Parliament, which is punishable by Parliament.
The procedure before the Committee is very much in the hands of the Chairman. In this Case Mr Whittingdale, MP, decided that the way to operate was for each member of the Committee to have an allotted period to ask the questions they wanted to ask. Effectively therefore the Murdochs faced 9 or 10 separate prosecuting counsel, all asking questions about different areas. There was however no cohesion in the process, and points were returned to, and gone over more than once, even where it appeared to an outside observer, that the matter had been dealt with already. Each MP on the Committee however wanted to have their chance to question the Murdochs, as was their right, even where that questioning did not really advance matters at all. Only Tom Watson MP, who has been pursuing the phone hacking matter for a number of years, really took the Murdochs through a detailed and logical questioning proves, and it might have been much better if he had been allowed to continue asking questions on behalf of the Committee, but the members were not willing to give up their own chance to interrogate. In fact, the most telling moment of the proceedings, excluding the pie attack on Rupert Murdoch, occurred at the very end, when the Chairman permitted Mr Watson to ask a supplementary question, as I will refer to below.
In contrast, the Home Affairs Select Committee, chaired by Mr Vaz, has taken a far more structured approach with witnesses. Mr Vaz’s practice is to deal with one area at a time, giving the members of the Committee turns to ask about the specific areas identified before moving on to another part of the investigation. This seems to be a more logical way of proceeding, allowing MPs to follow up on and return to issues raised in the answers.
As with the Sheridan case, many of the questions were potted speeches, perhaps designed to be a snappy sound bite for the news, rather than to get meaningful answers from the Murdochs.
There have been various areas in both gentlemen’s evidence which have been looked at, but I want to focus on one.
After the pie incident, and on the completion of all of the questioning, James Murdoch was asked at Q 413 by Mr Watson “When you signed off the Taylor payment, did you see or were you made aware of the full Neville email, the transcript of the hacked voicemail messages?” (The uncorrected transcript of proceedings is the source for these extracts ) (The Taylor payment refers to the settlement of a claim of phone hacking against the NotW by Gordon Taylor, head of the Professional Footballers’ Association, where James Murdoch authorised a payment of £700,000 including costs to conclude the matter. The “Neville” referred to was a former chief reporter for the NotW who received an email containing transcripts of many of Taylor’s phone conversations.)
James Murdoch replied, “No, I was not aware of that at the time.”
Since that evidence was given, Mr Tom Crone, former legal manager for the NotW and Mr Colin Myler, former editor of the NotW, have issued a statement saying that James Murdoch had seen that email, in contradiction of his evidence to the Committee. Does James Murdoch’s answer cause him problems?
If it transpires that the answer was wrong, and Mr Watson has already asked the police to investigate the evidence given to the Committee, would James Murdoch be in difficulties? There is a difference here between what the legal consequences of any error would be and the public relations and corporate ones. If it is the case that James Murdoch did see the email at the time, then I imagine his explanation would be that he had simply forgotten this, on the basis that many things have happened over the years since the payment was authorised, and that he has seen many items regarding this whole affair. If Mr Watson had been afforded the chance of prolonged questioning on this point, then perhaps James Murdoch would have found himself in a position where it would be hared to explain this as a lapse of memory. Interestingly, the following exchange between Mr Whittingdale and Mr Watson took place just after the above question was asked.
Chair: I am getting galled. We have covered this at some considerable length.
Mr Watson: Actually, Chairman, we have not, but I respect you. Mr Murdoch, your wife has a very good left hook.
Mr Watson was denied to chance of pinning James Murdoch down, although by this stage the Murdochs had been giving evidence, including the interruption, for over three hours.
How do these cases bear upon the possible NotW perjury charges?
Tommy Sheridan dispensed with his counsel at an early stage of his trial, and proceeded to defend himself. By all accounts, for a lay person, he did a good job. After all, this was not far short of a matter of life and death for him, and he has always been known for his oratorical skills.
However, one disadvantage comes from his lack of court experience. As with the Bonds Grand Jury, Sheridan’s questions were often imprecise and vague. Frequently the questions, especially when asked of his political or media opponents, were barely disguised polemic, perhaps designed to appeal to the jury. In addition, I imagine that, in conjunction with his remaining legal advisers, Mr Sheridan had decided by this stage not to give evidence himself. Therefore some of his questions would, either deliberately or sub-consciously, been designed to get his “evidence” across to the jury, although he would have been aware that the judge would direct the jury that his questions did not amount to testimony.
In addition, there is the problem that the three NotW witnesses were not, by and large, prosecution witnesses. Bob Bird was called by the Crown to give evidence about payments to witnesses and about the video tape purporting to show Sheridan “confessing” to his former friend, George McNeilage. Sheridan’s cross examination of Bird lasted much longer than his examination in chief. The questioning ranged through many areas. As I have written before, Mr Bird has some questions to answer in connection with his evidence regarding missing emails. He told the court that a large number of emails had been lost when transferred to Mumbai and thus could not be made available to the defence. However, after an investigation by the Information Commissioner, it transpired that the emails were still in existence and that there had been no transfer of them anywhere, especially not to Mumbai. Mr Bird will maintain, I am sure, that he made an innocent mistake. That is one of the issues I imagine Strathclyde Police will be investigating. Clearly also the recovery of evidence sought by the defence is relevant to the case, even if ultimately the emails contain nothing that would have assisted Mr Sheridan.
Mr Bird was asked about the “culture” of the NotW. That is a matter for debate, and not one where an answer can amount to perjury. Subjective questions of that nature have their role in the court process, but cannot, in my submission, found a perjury case.
Mr Wight was called as a Crown witness formally, but this as a courtesy to Mr Sheridan. After confirming his details to the prosecutor, Mr Sheridan began what was, in effect, cross examination of Mr Wight. However he too was not asked the detailed and precise questions a professional advocate would have done, and was not pinned down on areas where otherwise there might have been difficulties.
Finally Mr Coulson was called as a defence witness. His evidence was no part of the case against Mr Sheridan. Mr Sheridan’s case against the NotW at his trial was, effectively, that the paper was against him as he was an effective tribune of the people, holding big businesses like the NotW to account, and that they determined to destroy him by whatever means necessary. This included phone hacking, although it was never made crystal clear how this impinged on the specifics of the case against him. Mr Sheridan had tried to call as a witness an impersonator who could “do” Mr Sheridan’s voice, and who had done so on the radio, perhaps to show that the McNeilage Tape could have been prepared by an impressionist. Alternatively it was hinted that, if his phone had been tapped or hacked, then extracts could have been put together to create the incriminating tape. However Mr Sheridan, whilst suggesting these possibilities did not produce any expert testimony regarding the video, and effectively left it to the jury to determine that one or more of these factors might lead them to disregard it.
Mr Coulson denied that there was a “culture” of phone hacking at the NotW. If he had been asked if there had ever been such an activity, without going into the realms of “cultures” and if the questioning had precisely defined what phone hacking was, and that the questions were looking at whether this was done either by NotW staff or agents for them, this might have been more problematic for Mr Coulson, standing what is now publicly available. However, I don’t understand that the questioning went down such a detailed road.
Press interest has centred on Mr Coulson’s reply to the question asked of him about making payments to “corrupt” police officers. Mr Coulson replied that the NotW did not make payments to corrupt police officers.
Here again the addition of just one word “corrupt” to the question puts a different perspective on how any perjury charge regarding this might go. Let’s assume, for hypothetical purposes only, that the NotW did make payments to police officers (as indeed Rebekah Brooks, former editor of the NotW confirmed to Parliament in 2003). The NotW has over the years worked closely with the police, often providing them with details of their investigations exposing criminality in others. In return, for the purposes of this example, grateful police officers might have provided information to the NotW and been thanked by way of a financial gift. The NotW, in such hypothetical circumstances, might consider these officers to be fine and up-standing members of the force, assisting the NotW in bringing news of wrongdoing to the public’s attention, whilst not compromising criminal processes. These officers, in this example, would not be seen by the NotW as corrupt. This is despite the fact that it is illegal for an officer to receive payments in such circumstances, and, on one view, receipt of such a payment would render them, in law “corrupt”. But if Mr Coulson was aware of payments to officers, his belief, whilst legally wrong, that they were not corrupt, would mean that his answer would not be a wilful evasion.
As with the other witnesses, a more detailed examination of maters might have pinned the witness down clearly and unequivocally. However, as with Mr Bonds, the “killer questions” were not asked, giving the person responding legitimate room for manoeuvre in their response.
So where does this take us? The Bonds case shows how important the questions asked are before a person can face charges for perjury or similar matters.
Looking at the possible matters for consideration just now, the normal position applies – namely that it is very difficult to establish perjury to obtain a conviction.
But there is more than the justice system to consider.
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have been convicted in the court of public opinion. They might never achieve the goal of being enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, although their performances deserve it.
Tommy Sheridan’s position is polarised. His supporters never doubted him, despite his conviction. His enemies simply took the conviction as validation of their opposition to him. In general perhaps the conviction reinforced the image of Sheridan as a rogue, but a likeable one, complete with his sun tan. Few “neutrals” would have had sympathy for the NotW even after the conviction.
In light of recent events, there will be even less feeling for the NotW.
The Murdochs have been seen on the world stage, and, even if nothing further happens as regards James, there will not be, for a long time, a positive opinion of News International here.
The final question is what criminal proceedings against Mr Coulson, in particular, would mean for the Prime Minister, Mr Cameron? But that is a question to be answered another day.