'Telegraph' denies Galloway vendetta

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The Independent Online

The Daily Telegraph was accused yesterday of conducting a "massive exercise in politically motivated character assassination" against the former Labour MP George Galloway.

The Daily Telegraph was accused yesterday of conducting a "massive exercise in politically motivated character assassination" against the former Labour MP George Galloway.

On the third day of the MP's libel action against the newspaper the High Court was told by Mr Galloway's counsel that the Telegraph sought to "terminate him as a public figure".

Under cross-examination, Neil Darbyshire, who was acting editor of the Telegraph when it reported claims that Mr Galloway was in the secret pay of Saddam Hussein, dismissed suggestions that the newspaper was conducting a vendetta. The Telegraph claims that what it published was responsible journalism and that it was in the public interest to report the allegations, which were based on documents discovered by one its correspondents in the burnt-out ruins of a ministry in Baghdad.

Watched from the public gallery by his former boss - the former Telegraph editor Charles Moore - Mr Darbyshire said he had been in contact with Mr Moore over the story. Mr Moore was able to monitor the progress of the coverage via a computer at his home, the court was told.

Richard Rampton QC, counsel for Mr Galloway, said: "I suggest that you thought these documents provided you with a heaven-sent opportunity to terminate Mr Galloway as a public figure once and for all. Right or wrong?" Mr Darbyshire replied: "Absolute claptrap".

Mr Rampton added: "And so far from being a balanced piece of responsible reportage, this was a massive exercise in politically motivated character assassination on a grand scale." "Ditto," said Mr Darbyshire.

In a witness statement, Mr Moore said he considered his relationship with Mr Galloway to be a good one. But he said the documents discovered by the Telegraph's David Blair after the fall of Baghdad suggested there was a "pecuniary motive behind [Galloway's] support for Iraq".

The MP was a high profile campaigner against the US-led invasion of Iraq, and had long opposed sanctions on humanitarian grounds. He now sits as an independent MP after being expelled by Labour last year.

In his statement, Mr Moore said: "The documents created a prima facie case against Mr Galloway and, from the reports given to me, he had failed to satisfy me or my colleagues that the documents were otherwise than genuine." He described David Blair as an "extremely able and careful journalist" with a "scrupulous regard for accuracy".

Mr Justice Eady read from a Telegraph leader column headlined "Saddam's little helper", which inferred that Mr Galloway might have been guilty of treason. The judge asked Mr Darbyshire whether these claims should have been put to Mr Galloway. Reading from the article, the judge also highlighted a paragraph that said money was being diverted not from Saddam's personal bank account but from the UN's oil-for-food programme.

The hearing was adjourned until tomorrow when the judge will hear closing submissions. He is expected to reserve judgment for two weeks.