It's not just what was said, it's the way they said it

Why George Galloway's £150,000 libel victory over 'The Telegraph' is not a blow to press freedom

To George Galloway his libel victory and £150,000 damages was a victory not only over The Daily Telegraph and his nominated demons Conrad Black, Barbara Amiel and Charles Moore, but against all those politicians, American and British, responsible for prosecuting the Iraq war. Predictable as those victory sentiments might have been, coming from this maverick Scottish MP, they were no less so than the cries from The Telegraph that the court result was a blow for freedom of expression in this country. But does it represent a serious setback for press freedom?

To George Galloway his libel victory and £150,000 damages was a victory not only over The Daily Telegraph and his nominated demons Conrad Black, Barbara Amiel and Charles Moore, but against all those politicians, American and British, responsible for prosecuting the Iraq war. Predictable as those victory sentiments might have been, coming from this maverick Scottish MP, they were no less so than the cries from The Telegraph that the court result was a blow for freedom of expression in this country. But does it represent a serious setback for press freedom?

A complicated legal argument dominated by a legal precedent known (but by few of the general public) as the "Reynolds defence" will not necessarily persuade that public of the importance of the press having the "freedom" to publish damaging material about an individual that it admits may or may not be true.

Public trust in the media, and particularly the press, is at a low ebb with much of its behaviour widely regarded as irresponsible, sensationalising and intrusive. Libel trials held before juries very seldom go against the person bringing the action. The Galloway case was heard by a judge sitting alone and was thus more legalistic, but the result was the same. One by-product of this case is that it reminds us that trust in the press is not a trivial issue, and that regaining it should be high on the agenda of newspapers.

Look at the bald facts of this case from the point of view of an ordinary reader of an ordinary newspaper. A Labour MP, renowned for his opposition to the Iraq war, a bit of a red, is accused of having a financial relationship with the Saddam regime from which he receives £375,000 a year. Worse, this money was diverted from the oil-for-food programme which was there to help suffering Iraqis.

The allegations are based on documents found by a reporter in a foreign ministry office after the fall of Baghdad. They are in Arabic and the reporter has them translated. They are said to be signed by the head of Iraqi security. The allegations are put to the MP, who strenuously denies them. The newspaper then gives much space over several days to the hugely damaging detail of the allegations.

The story, together with supporting leader comment, is clearly hostile to the MP. There is, for example, a photograph of the MP's villa in Portugal, and the price he paid for it is published. Was this inviting implications to be drawn? The Daily Telegraph is known to be no friend of George Galloway, but it is not alone in this.

The rest of the press, or most of it, is broadly supportive of The Telegraph in deciding to publish, and suggests that the MP contests the charges in court. Which he does. The newspaper makes no attempt to prove its allegations, admits it is in no position to do so, but relies on the "Reynolds defence" (arising from a 1999 case brought, successfully, by the then Irish prime minister, Albert Reynolds, against The Sunday Times) that newspapers can tell their readers about serious matters of public interest, even if they have not been substantiated. This defence was later supported and more tightly defined in the House of Lords, where Lord Nicholls accepted that this qualified privilege could apply, but only in a specified set of circumstances.

Our ordinary and fair-minded reader would, I think, say that the victim, Galloway, has been accused of something he strongly denies and which the newspaper is unable to prove, or even attempt to prove. Our reader would probably say that mud sticks. And he or she would probably go on to say (and here we are back to the present reputation of newspapers) that the papers are doing it all the time and on the rare occasions they correct something that they have got wrong the correction is tiny, buried and, anyway, the damage has been done. The fact that most of the time this is not the case is neither here nor there. Mud sticks on the press too.

The judge in the Galloway case, Mr Justice Eady, did not reject the concept of the Reynolds defence; he insisted that the clearly set-out basis on which it applied should be followed, and found that it had not been followed by the Telegraph. It came down to the manner in which the allegations were reported. It is not necessarily a setback for press freedom. Editors will undoubtedly be more cautious about such stories in the future, but are not stopped from running them. They will have to be more neutral; the right of reply, its presentation and the time allowed for its preparation, will have to be more carefully considered, and the display of the story, its headlines and pictures, will have to be treated more circumspectly.

The Telegraph seems likely to take the case to the European court. There is an irony in a newspaper so opposed to Europe and its institutions seeking what it would regard as fairer treatment there than in the British High Court.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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