Galloway 'libel case of the decade' opens

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The Independent Online

George Galloway, one of Britain's most colourful MPs, is due in the High Court tomorrow for the opening of what could be one of the most important libel trials of the decade.

Mr Galloway is suing The Daily Telegraph for alleging that he had received a portion of Iraq's oil revenues, worth £375,000, from Saddam Hussein's regime.

The claim was based on documents discovered by the newspaper's Baghdad correspondent, David Blair, in the burnt-out ruins of Iraq's former Foreign Ministry.

Mr Galloway's legal team, headed by one of the country's most expensive libel lawyers, has not disputed that the documents are genuine, and has accepted that the case be heard by a judge without a jury.

The MP, who was expelled from the Labour Party for his attacks on Tony Blair's involvement in the Iraq war, has consistently denied receiving subsidies from Baghdad.

The case will hinge on the so-called "Reynolds qualified privilege", named after a libel case between the former Irish prime minister Albert Reynolds and The Sunday Times, in which the House of Lords created a new defence for a newspaper that had published damaging and unproven allegations about public figures. But to qualify, the newspaper has to have met stringent criteria on research and presentation.

Mr Galloway's lawyers are expected to argue that The Daily Telegraph's reporting of the discovery went beyond what was justified by the words in the Iraqi documents, and that it did not give Mr Galloway sufficient time to answer the allegations.

There is also likely to be fierce legal argument about an editorial comment on the find, published on 22 April last year, which, among other comments, said, "there is a word for taking money from enemy regimes: treason".

The trial will be a battle of legal heavyweights. Mr Galloway's team includes Heather Rogers, a barrister from Matrix Chambers - the same chambers as Cherie Blair - who was named in the Legal 500 lawyers' directory this year as the country's best junior barrister in defamation cases.

His senior counsel is Richard Rampton QC, who represented McDonald's in the "McLibel" case, the longest trial in British legal history, for which he earned a reputed £2,000 a day. He successfully defended the police in the libel action brought by the actress Gillian Taylforth over allegations of sex in a Range Rover beside the A1.

The Daily Telegraph's team will be headed by James Price QC, who defended Hello magazine last year in the privacy case brought by Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.