George Galloway won a comprehensive victory in the High Court yesterday in his libel trial against The Daily Telegraph over reports that he was in the secret pay of Saddam Hussein.
The former Labour MP was awarded £150,000 in libel damages by the High Court and later claimed the newspaper had been administered a "judicial caning". He was also granted costs against the Telegraph, which faces a bill of more than £1.2m. Mr Justice Eady denied the paper permission to appeal, although Telegraph lawyers are expected to seek the right directly from the Court of Appeal over liability and the "excessive" scale of the damages.
The anti-war campaigner, who represents Glasgow Kelvin, said he was angry that he had been forced to seek legal remedy. "I have had to risk total and utter ruin in order to bring this case. If I had lost it, I would be bankrupt, my house would be taken away from me, my job would be lost," he said.
Turning on the Government and its media supporters over the war in Iraq, Mr Galloway said he would use the House of Commons to "ventilate" the issues raised in the trial.
He added: "I am glad and somewhat humbled to discover that there is at least one corner of the English field which remains uncorrupted and independent, and that corner is in this courtroom."
Mr Justice Eady told the court that the newspaper had conveyed to "reasonable and fair-minded readers" seriously defamatory claims that Mr Galloway was secretly receiving £375,000 a year from Hussein. The newspaper also suggested he had diverted money from the oil-for-food programme, depriving the Iraqi people of food and medicines. It was inferred he had used his Mariam Appeal to personally enrich himself and that his actions had been tantamount to treason.
The newspaper's claim that its coverage was no more than "neutral reportage" of important documents found in post-war Baghdad was untenable. Journalists had also failed to give Mr Galloway sufficient opportunity to respond to the allegations, made in a series of articles in April 2003. The judge described the Telegraph's Neil Darbyshire, who was acting editor at the time, as an "engaging and frank witness". But he said was "deluding" himself if he thought the coverage was neutral.
In his judgment, he said: "They did not merely adopt the allegations. They embraced them with relish and fervour. They went on to embellish them in the ways I have described."
Mr Darbyshire described the ruling as "a blow to the principle of freedom of expression in this country."
"If, as we understand the court to have held, English law offers no real protection to newspapers that publish documents which raise such important questions ... then freedom of expression is an illusion."
Lawyers warned yesterday that Mr Galloway's win seriously weakened a newly-created defence, used by the Telegraph, that papers had come to rely on when printing allegations about the famous.
The 10-point public figure defence first emerged when the former Irish prime minister, Albert Reynolds, sued the Sunday Times for defamation in 1999.
In that case, a panel of law lords ruled that a newspaper need not have to prove the truth of an allegation provided the journalism was responsible and in the public interest.
Many journalists hoped that this defence - which sets out 10 tests for responsible and accurate journalism - would allow them to pursue stories that would only normally be capable of substantiation by using the kind of resources available to professional investigation agencies such as the police.
But yesterday's judgment, said media lawyers, showed that the Reynolds case could only be relied on in very rare cases and probably not at all when the allegations were forcefully made.
Simon Smith, managing partner of the libel law firm Schillings, said: "The Reynolds defence has only succeeded once, which shows it is simply not the big weapon that journalists hoped it would be. But it is certainly fatal [to a defence] if the newspaper has not put all the allegations to the claimant."
Privately, many judges are known not to favour the Reynolds defence because it creates uncertainty in the law.
Edward Garnier QC, an expert in defamation and a former shadow attorney general, said: "What newspapers can't do is scream 'Reynolds' and hope that this will be enough to let them sail through if they haven't done their homework." Caroline Kean, the head of litigation at the defamation experts, Wiggon & Co, said: "It seems very unlikely that publishers will rely on the Reynolds test if that is their only defence. It has even less chance of succeeding when an article is published with attitude, like the Telegraph story.
"In reality, it will be only useful in the most bland articles where there is no editorial slant. Otherwise, to rely on it will be very dangerous."