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'Fettesgate' fall-out

Kirk Williams on a case that has helped to criminalise gay men in Edinburgh

In the early hours of 19 July last year somebody broke into the Fettes headquarters of Lothian and Borders Police in Edinburgh and stole some files from the offices of the Scottish crime squad. It was the start of what became known as 'Fettesgate'.

The fall-out from the affair has included reporters being arrested, a TV documentary being banned by the high court, and all manner of rumours and stories about dirty deals in high places. The most important development, however, is that what began as an embarrassing break-in for the police has become a debate about whether homosexuals can be trusted in public life.

Some of the files stolen were said to include details of an 'alleged homosexual ring' at the heart of the Scottish legal system. As a result, 'Fettesgate' has sparked a virtual witch-hunt against homosexuals, especially those in the legal profession.

Scottish newspapers have wallowed in smut and innuendo: rent boy-and-judge stories (always good for circulation), gutter journalism on the seediness of homosexual life, the words 'gays' and 'criminal' constantly presented as two halves of a whole. Homosexuals who are publicly named are always 'well-known' or 'prominent' on the gay scene, with the implication of promiscuity.

ALF smokescreen

The embarrassing break-in at Fettes (the intruder gained entry to the police HQ through an open window) was initially blamed on the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), since files on ALF activists were said to be missing. But rumours were soon flying that other files had also been taken. Investigations into local supporters of both the Irish republican movement and Loyalist groups were said to be missing. So were details of police surveillance in Lothian Regional Council offices, local pubs and top people's shop Jenners.

As the police came under public criticism they decided to blame the messengers. In dawn raids in Chatham in Kent and Ayr in Scotland they arrested journalists from Scotland on Sunday and the Scottish Sun. Both newspapers had run stories on the break-in and claimed to have seen some of the stolen files. Newspaper editors were up in arms at police intrusion and harassment.

By early August, however, the press had something else to write about. Stories began to circulate (from 'unnamed sources'), that police believed the ALF angle was a smokescreen. The real intruders were said to be 'criminals on the fringes of the Edinburgh gay community'. The papers were now less interested in who stole the files than in what was in them. The word was that they contained police reports on an alleged homosexual ring in the Scottish legal system, a 'magic circle' said to be involved 'in massive fraudulent deals and conspiracies to pervert the course of justice'.

The language and innuendo associated with the gutter press has been displayed in some of Scotland's 'quality' newspapers. Scotland on Sunday (9 August 1992) talked of 'informers in the netherworld where the capital's gay and criminal fraternities overlap', and reported rumours that the break-in was masterminded by a 'Mr Big' who wanted a file on 'a gay fraudster'. The paper said that the thieves had got hold of a 'secret dossier on top gays'. The Herald (11 August 1992) described the 'gay scene' operating 'like freemasonry...on a clandestine self-help basis'.

The press really licked its lips in September when the 'secret dossier on top gays' turned up on their desks. Under a banner headline 'Gay threat to justice', Edinburgh's Evening News claimed that the file contained police investigations into 'influential gays in the Scottish legal profession'. The report supposedly named a judge, two sheriffs, prominent lawyers and advocates, local businessmen and members of Edinburgh's 'criminal fraternity' who, it suggested, were all part of a 'gay conspiracy'.

The police report was also said to detail five criminal cases which the crown prosecution office had decided to drop. The Evening News story suggested a homosexual link between the cases: that some of the prosecutors were homosexual, and that some of the defendants were either homosexual themselves or knew that gay lawyers and advocates could be blackmailed into dropping the case.

The Scotsman suggested that the police report was a draft of one which had subsequently been dropped because of the lack of 'hard evidence'. But it ran a story based on the report anyway. The lack of evidence didn't slow down the rumour machine.

'Magic circle'

The stories of homosexual 'magic circles' and 'gay conspiracies' have had an obvious appeal to a police force frustrated at losing prosecutions. They are tailor-made too for papers which love scandal-mongering, especially about gays. And they have also attracted some Scottish Labour MPs, who have been to the fore in demanding investigations into how 'homosexual relationships in private lives may have influenced people holding prominent public office in the judiciary' (Tam Dalyell, Evening News, 11 September 1992). The outcome of all this has been
a predictable increase in public hostility to homosexuals.

At the end of January 1993, a report commissioned by the Lord Advocate's office concluded that there was no evidence of a 'magic circle'. The response revealed that the damage had already been done. The Daily Record ran a banner headline declaring that 'Law was not bent'. The Evening News said 'Gay plot is ruled out'. The Scotsman wrote about 'Lawyers cleared of gay conspiracy'. Gay, bent, plot, conspiracy: you didn't even have to read between the lines to see the links being made.

The facts about that break-in may never be public knowledge. But one thing is clear. The primary victims of 'Fettesgate' are not the embarrassed Lothian and Border police, the journalists arrested or the Scottish legal system, but homosexuals in Edinburgh. A nudge-nudge campaign led by the Scottish press and backed by some Labour MPs has seen to it that gay men in Scotland are likely to suffer even more bigotry and distrust in the future.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 53, March 1993

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