Newspaper loses Galloway libel appeal

Click to follow
The Independent Online

George Galloway - favourite for eviction from the Big Brother house - was spared a Big Bill today when the Daily Telegraph newspaper lost its appeal over a libel action.

If the newspaper had won the case at the Court of Appeal, the Respect MP would have faced a legal bill estimated at around £2 million and bankruptcy.

Mr Galloway has already admitted the sum would force him into bankruptcy.

But the Master of the Rolls, Sir Anthony Clarke, together with Lords Justices Chadwick and Laws, all dismissed the newspaper's argument that the 2003 story that the MP received money from Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq was covered by qualified privilege.

The judges also agreed that the £150,000 damages awarded to the MP by High Court judge Mr Justice Eady in December 2004 should not be reduced.

"Given the seriousness of the key allegation Mr Galloway had taken money from Iraq for personal profit, we can see no basis upon which this court could interfere with the amount of damages."

James Price QC, representing the newspaper, had told the judges at the hearing last year that it was in the public interest to publish documents found by its foreign correspondent David Blair inside the Iraqi foreign ministry after the fall of Baghdad.

The newspaper was then entitled to comment and offer its own interpretation that the documents appeared to show he received money from Saddam Hussein's regime, said Mr Price.

He said the story, published in April 2003, was covered by privilege because it was "of truly global significance".

It was in the public interest whether the documents were true or false, he said.

Mr Galloway, who represented Glasgow Kelvin for Labour, has always denied ever seeking or receiving money from Saddam Hussein.

He was expelled from the Labour Party for comments about the Iraq war and went on to win the Bethnal Green and Bow seat as leader of the anti-war Respect party, ousting Labour's Oona King.

The judges refused the newspaper permission to appeal to the House of Lords although it can petition the Lords direct.

Mr Price, for the Telegraph, said the case was "right at the leading edge" of the debate over freedom of expression as it involved an elected MP allegedly taking money from a hostile foreign government.

Richard Rampton QC, for Mr Galloway, said permission should be refused by the appeal judges as theirs was "one of the most unequivocally emphatic judgments" in this field of the law that he had ever come across.

The trial judge had been upheld on every single point, he said.

The judges ordered the Telegraph to pay Mr Galloway's costs of the appeal, estimated at around £140,000, and to make an interim payment in respect of that sum of £60,000.

The newspaper will also have to pay the £150,000 damages and £200,000 as an interim payment on account of Mr Galloway's costs of the action.

The order for payment of all the sums was stayed pending disposal of the newspaper's application for permission to appeal to the Lords, and pending determination of that appeal if it gets the go-ahead.

If the Lords refuse to hear an appeal, the newspaper must pay Mr Galloway the sums due within 14 days.

There was no immediate reaction from the newspaper and Mr Galloway's solicitors are unable to communciate with him until he emerges from the Big Brother house.

The first of the articles found to be defamatory was published in April 2003, a month after the invasion of Iraq by coalition forces.

Under a headline "Galloway was in Saddam's pay, say secret Iraqi documents", the newspaper alleged the "Labour MP received at least £375,000 a year" from the oil-for-food programme, which was designed to bring relief to the people of Iraq.

The MP's case during the libel trial was that the articles conveyed the impression that he took large sums of money from Saddam Hussein for his own personal benefit and requested more.

Mr Justice Eady held that the allegations in the newspaper were seriously defamatory, conveying the meaning that Mr Galloway had diverted cash from the aid programme, depriving the Iraqi people, whose interest he had claimed to represent, of food and medicines.

The judge said readers would also understand the articles to mean that the MP had used his own Mariam Appeal as a front for personal enrichment and what he had done was tantamount to treason.

The Telegraph argued that the public had a right to know the contents of the documents even if they wre defamatory and irrespective of whether the factual content was true or not.

But Mr Justice Eady said the Telegraph was not neutral in its reporting and not only adopted the allegations but "embraced them with relish and fervour and even embellished them".

Sir Anthony, in the ruling today, said the appeal court agreed with the High Court judge's comments that the allegations were seriously defamatory.

He also said the defence of privilege failed because the allegations that Mr Galloway had taken money for his own personal gain were presented as fact not comment in the newspaper.

Sir Anthony concluded: "The Daily Telegraph did not at any stage seek to justify those defamatory statements as true.

"It defended the action only on the basis of privilege and fair comment. The judge rejected both defences. He was, in our judgment, right to do so."