BEWARE DICTATORS BEARING GIFTS
Paul Anderson, Tribune column, May 2 2003
The fuss seems to have died down a little over the discovery in Baghdad by a Daily Telegraph journalist of documents that appear to show that George Galloway, the maverick Labour MP, received large sums of money from Saddam Hussein. And it’s not surprising that the story has gone quiet. Mr Galloway is promising to sue for libel, and that has made not only the Telegraph but every other newspaper very wary. Recent changes in Britain’s libel law might make it possible for newspapers to mount a succesful defence that falls short of proving that the documents are genuine and that Mr Galloway took the cash, but this is by no means guaranteed. Once the writs start flying, any sensible editor takes cover.
In time, perhaps, we will get to know the truth about this murky business. Mr Galloway says he did not receive funding from Iraq, and it is indeed possible that he is an unwitting victim of some vile scam. Some of the more lurid scenarios that have been advanced by his supporters are, however, rather implausible.
In particular, the idea that the Telegraph forged the documents or published them in the knowledge that they are forgeries almost beggars belief. The Telegraph is certainly politically hostile to Mr Galloway and everything he stands for. But its reporters and editors are not crazy. They know that their reputations would be destroyed if they were discovered to have been complicit in faking evidence of this kind. They simply wouldn’t risk it.
It is slightly more believable that the documents were forged and planted for the Telegraph to discover by some spook or other. As several Galloway supporters have remarked, including the editor of Tribune, there is a history of this sort of thing.
The most notorious example, of course, was the Zinoviev Letter of 1924. Purportedly a missive from the head of the Communist International demanding that British communists prepare to subvert Britain’s armed forces, it was published by the Daily Mail in the run-up to the 1924 general election as a means of discrediting Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Government, which had negotiated trade treaties with Soviet Russia. In fact, it was almost certainly forged, probably by White Russian emigres with the connivance of British intelligence agents hostile to Labour.
There are also more recent cases of intelligence service dirty tricks to undermine Labour, most notoriously in the 1970s, when various spooks spent an inordinate amount of time and energy attempting to smear Harold Wilson as a Soviet stooge. And who can forget the Sunday Times’s preposterous claims in the early 1990s that Michael Foot was the KGB’s “Agent Boot”?
But is Mr Galloway the victim of this sort of sting? Maybe, but I doubt it. He just isn’t an important enough player to warrant the effort that would be involved in setting it up.
If he didn’t receive the money from Iraq, the most plausible scenario is that the payments were authorised somewhere in the upper echelons of Saddam’s regime — and then siphoned off by someone feathering his or her own nest.
This would fit not only with what we know about the enthusiasm of the Iraqi Ba’ath leadership for self-enrichment but also with its record of paying its supporters and propagandists abroad.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, its chosen vehicle in Britain was the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, the paranoid Trotskyist sect led by the late and unlamented Gerry Healy, which, in return for money to subsidise its daily newspaper News Line and the weekly Labour Herald, informed on Iraqi exiles in London and printed encomiums to Saddam — “a man of firm action in home affairs, insisting on the highest standards of dedication and integrity of Government officials”, as News Line had it in 1980.
Some time after the WRP imploded in the mid-1980s, the Iraqis appear to have decided that the Labour left and the peace movement was a better pond to fish in than the revolutionary Left. I remember as a journalist on Tribune in the late 1980s and early 1990s being offered by an intermediary free trips to Iraq at the regime’s expense, which I turned down. Plenty of others did not.
This is not to impugn their motives: often the only way to visit a totalitarian regime and meet its people is on an official trip. Nor is it to claim that every benefiary of Saddam’s hospitality turned into a propagandist for his vicious rule. But that was what he wanted — and from some people at least, all of whom should have known better, that was what he got.