Paul Anderson, Tribune column, December 10 2004
No journalist in his or her right mind argues too vigorously with the judgment of a British libel court — and I’m still just about in my right mind. You won’t catch me saying that George Galloway should have lost his case against the Telegraph because he lied in court and trousered large wads of wonga from that latter-day Mussolini, Saddam Hussein.
Indeed, though I’m no admirer of the MP for Glasgow Kelvin (soon to be candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow), I think he won pretty much fairly and squarely — given the rules of battle and the Telegraph’s legal tactics.
The Telegraph had precisely accused him of lining his own pockets with cash from the Iraqi regime (buying with it, inter alia, a “£250,000 villa” in Portugal). And it did so on the basis of a chance discovery of documents it had not established were genuine. Worse, if they were genuine, they did not show that Galloway had personally received a bean from Iraq.
In court, the Telegraph did not use the established defence of justification, that its defamation of Galloway was provably true (which would have meant demonstrating that the documents were genuine and that they showed he had personally benefited from Iraqi cash). Rather it adopted the weak defence that it had published material in good faith that it believed ought to be in the public sphere — the “Reynolds defence” established (if that’s the right word) a few years ago in a libel defence by the Sunday Times in an action brought by Albert Reynolds, the former Irish prime minister.
Like most hacks I know, I like the idea of the Reynolds defence: there are plenty of circumstances in which publication of defamatory material of provenance a bit too dubious to allow the defence of justification should be protected from libel action. They are, however, limited circumstances.
At very least, it should be incumbent on the publisher to make even the slightest question of the authenticity of such material explicit on publication: “If this letter is genuine, it suggests . . .” And the person who is its subject should at very least be given a serious opportunity to put his or her case.
Splashing unsubstantiated inferences from possibly dodgy documents across the front page at the first possible opportunity without allowing any time for someone to respond is — how shall we put it? — indefensible. And that’s what the Telegraph did.
But (and it’s a very big but) this should not be the end of the story. Galloway and his supporters have been crowing about his supposedly complete vindication by the High Court. But the judgment was much more limited. Galloway won because the judge decided that the Telegraph’s defence of its actions was asinine. It didn’t make clear any doubts it had about its documents, it massively over-egged its story and it gave Galloway only the most cursory opportunity to respond to its allegations.
The judgment does not, however, show that the documents on which the Telegraph based its story were fake. Nor does it put to rest the well sourced story — published by the Guardian earlier this year and not challenged legally by Galloway — that he accepted money for a pro-Iraq political campaign from a Jordanian businessman, Fawaz Zureikat, who got the cash for his donations, with the full support of Saddam’s fascist regime, from the UN programme set up to alleviate the effects on the Iraqi people of the sanctions imposed against Saddam during the 1990s.
This is a less damaging tale than the one published by the Telegraph. There is no evidence that Galloway benefited personally: any cash from Zureikat, he says, went to the Mariam Appeal, Galloway’s anti-sanctions pressure group. And there is no evidence that Galloway ever had even the faintest clue that Zureikat’s cash might have been siphoned off from the UN programme at Saddam’s request.
But this is still pretty damning stuff. At best, it shows Galloway failing to ask questions that he should have asked about where money was coming from. At worst — OK, I’m not going there.
In the meantime, lest we forget, Galloway will live for all time on videotape for his sycophancy to Saddam: “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.”
He was “Saddam’s little helper”, as the Telegraph headline had it, even if he wasn’t personally paid for his services and even if all the documents the Telegraph turned up were fakes. Now he’s decided to stand against Oona King in Bethnal Green and Bow, democratic socialists should make sure this apologist for kleptomaniac totalitarian dictatorship is dumped in the proverbial dustbin of history — where he belongs — by volunteering for her campaign.