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

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing company based i...

Ashdown Group: Content Manager - Publishing

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Guru Careers: Report Writer / Reporting Analyst

£25 - 30k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Report Writer / Reporting Analyst is nee...

Guru Careers: German Speaking Account Manager / Account Executive

£24-30K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A German speaking Account Manager ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own