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
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.
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.
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