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A Day For a Hanging Judge (August 2006)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

After Tommy Sheridan's victory, Scotland now knows it needs a competent media.


It was a day for judges, courts and novelists. We had driven over the Scottish Borders, following the trail of Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps, visited the fine John Buchan Centre at Broughton, and wound up following the actor, Michael Mackenzie, to Hugh MacDiarmid's cottage, high above Biggar at Candymill.

Compared with the crowds gawping at jugglers and stand-up comedians in Edinburgh, this was empty country. In the little burghs of the south-west, under a clear sky, the holidays scarcely registered. The folk from the central belt were roasting on the beaches of the Costa Blowlamp and the country of Buchan, Cunningham Graham, Auden, Hogg - and Dorothy Sayers, for God's sake! - was quiet in its magnificence. Irish-style literary summer schools? Decanting a bit of the Edinburgh megafest to these parts? Encouraging cycle-tourism by reopening Beattock station? We aren't Swiss, and this is McConnell country, where the state is a form of outdoor relief for the Labour party. So forget it, pal.

Candymill is sliced in half by the A702, in 1930s wiggly condition but carrying huge HGVs hurtling south to the M74. The Scottish Executive will spend a billion depopulating south Glasgow for an extension of the urban M74, which the Inquiry Reporter said was a waste of money, when a fraction of the dosh would have sorted out this primitive, dangerous link.

Michael Mackenzie is playing John Carnegie's Hermiston on the Fringe (8pm at the Netherbow since you ask), a feast of percussive Doric based on RL Stevenson's monstrous Tory judge. The original, Lord Braxfield, presided over William Pitt's "reign of terror" in Scotland after the French Revolution. "Come, sirs and help us hang these rascals," was one of his milder lines. Lost on our London influx - "Can't understand a word, mate'," Mackenzie mimics. "Would they say this if it was in Serbo-Croat?"

This is happening when, pleasant to record, the court of session trod, squelch, on the Braxfield de nos jours, Rupert Murdoch.

The Scottish edition of the News of the Screws had been out to get Tommy Sheridan, Scottish Socialist MSP. The fruity sex scandal need not detain us, being similar to those of the other politicos News Corp has stitched up. Sheridan took on a high-risk fightback, sued the NoW, then went on to conduct his own case. No fringe venue is ever going to equal Parliament House, but Sheridan inverted the whole business and played the judge.

Murdoch is an intelligent man and brilliant media professional - no one out of the Free Kirk, taught by Asa Briggs, could be anything else. He is also a Scottish lucifer, of the sort John Buchan was remarkably shrewd at sketching, equally contemptuous of the dim toffs and barrow boys he employs, the tight-arsed politicians he makes dance, and the public who sups the drivel he doles out. Sheridan, conducting his own case, managed to turn the tables. At the end the cockney who edits Murdoch's rag was whining, and black-browed Tommy sounded, for all his "working class" patter, just like Braxfield worrying his wretched victim, Duncan Jopp, "as a terrier plays with a rat."

Now, Murdoch has toyed with nationalism. His Sun backed the SNP from 1992 (when it usefully split the Scottish left vote) to 1997. Then, responding to a ukase from Aspen, it switched practically in mid-sentence to New Labour, like something out of Orwell's 1984. But where do his Scottish blats go now? He can't switch to Cameron because the Scots Tories are dead, and backing Labour simply keeps him down there with the plankton producing the Daily Record. The end of the road, for the country now knows it needs a competent media and the Scottish tabloid press is witless beyond redemption. If Sheridan has done nothing else he has, Braxfield-like, given it the rope and it has strung itself up.

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