Galloway wins Saddam libel battle

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The Independent Online

George Galloway today won £150,000 libel damages from The Daily Telegraph over "outrageous and incredibly damaging" allegations that he was in the pay of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

George Galloway won £150,000 libel damages from The Daily Telegraph today over allegations that he was in the secret pay of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

The 50-year-old MP for Glasgow Kelvin described the High Court ruling by Mr Justice Eady as a "judicial caning" for the newspaper, which has been left facing a costs bill of around £1.2 million.

Mr Galloway, who sued over "outrageous and incredibly damaging" allegations, was present at London's Law Courts for a ruling which he said brought him the "vindication" he sought.

Announcing his decision, the judge said he was "obliged to compensate Mr Galloway in respect of the publications and the aggravated features of the defendants' subsequent conduct, and to make an award for the purposes of restoring his reputation".

He added: "I do not think those purposes would be achieved by any award less than £150,000."

The MP's case centred on a series of articles published in April 2003 - following discovery of documents in Iraq by Telegraph reporter David Blair - which he said "claimed that I had made very substantial secret profits from Saddam Hussein and his regime".

Telegraph Group Limited denied libel, claiming that it was responsible journalism and in the public interest for it to publish the contents of documents on which the story was based.

The judge refused the newspaper permission to appeal, but it can apply directly to the Court of Appeal - it wants to challenge both the ruling on liability and the "excessive" damages award.

After the ruling, Mr Galloway, who was accompanied by friends, family and members of his office, said: "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."

Asked if he had anything to say about the existence of the documents at the centre of the case, the MP said: "The documents are either forgeries or they have been doctored - but they are in any case false."

He said he hoped one day to be able to establish "who was responsible for these documents".

Mr Galloway said: "For the moment the situation in Baghdad is such that were I to go there, I am sure the friends of the Daily Telegraph in control of Iraq would like to arrange an accident for me on the way or whilst there."

Asked if he was happy about the level of damages, he replied: "Happiness is not what I am feeling right now. I am extremely angry. 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.

"I have had to risk absolutely everything in order to obtain the vindication which this judgment brings me. So, I do not feel happy. I feel angry that I was forced to do that."

On behalf of the Telegraph, executive editor Neil Darbyshire said: "We are naturally disappointed by this judgment, which we believe is a blow to the principle of freedom of expression in this country.

"We will be seeking leave to appeal from the Court of Appeal.

"The Daily Telegraph published genuine documents that emanated from the highest levels of the Iraqi government and raised questions about the activities of Mr Galloway, a British Member of Parliament.

"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 about the conduct of an elected member of Parliament, then freedom of expression is an illusion."

He said it had never been the newspaper's case to suggest that the allegations contained in the documents were true.

"These documents were published by us because their contents raised very important questions at a crucial stage of the war against Iraq."

Mr Darbyshire said: "When we published the documents, we did so believing that their contents were important, should be made public and would in due course be investigated by the proper authorities."

An allegation that the documents were published as part of a witchhunt against Mr Galloway was "nonsense".

In his lengthy ruling, the judge said that the allegations were "seriously defamatory" of Mr Galloway.

He said: "It was the defendants' primary case that their coverage was no more than "neutral reportage" of documents discovered by a reporter in the badly-damaged Foreign Ministry in Baghdad, but the nature, content and tone of their coverage cannot be so described."

Although Mr Galloway was interviewed by telephone on the afternoon of April 21, he was not given an opportunity to read the Iraqi documents beforehand, and neither were they read to him.

"He did not therefore have a fair or reasonable opportunity to make inquiries or meaningful comment upon them before they were published."

It was not put to Mr Galloway during the interview that the newspaper was proposing to publish any of the allegations to the effect of personal enrichment.

"Again, he did not have a proper opportunity to respond in advance to allegations of such gravity."

He added: "In all the circumstances, it cannot be said that the defendants were under a social or moral duty to make the allegations about Mr Galloway at that time, and without any attempt at verification.

"Accordingly they were not protected by privilege at common law."

He said that none of the allegations was protected by the defence of fair comment.