Galloway ruling should not set a precedent

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It was unfortunate that one of the most important test cases of the emerging public interest defence for newspapers accused of libel should concern the MP George Gallowayand the thorny subject of his relations with Saddam Hussein. The case concerned the discovery by
The Daily Telegraph of documents in Baghdad purportedly showing that the Glasgow MP had accepted money from the Iraqi dictator.

It was unfortunate that one of the most important test cases of the emerging public interest defence for newspapers accused of libel should concern the MP George Gallowayand the thorny subject of his relations with Saddam Hussein. The case concerned the discovery by The Daily Telegraph of documents in Baghdad purportedly showing that the Glasgow MP had accepted money from the Iraqi dictator.

Mr Galloway sued the paper for printing what he regarded as false allegations and failing to give him the opportunity to respond in advance of publication to allegations of such gravity. The Daily Telegraph replied by referring to the 1999 case of Reynolds v Times Newspapers, which seemed to open the way for newspapers to publish documents in good faith even if they were wrong, provided that publication appeared to be in the public interest and the paper had conducted proper checks to test their validity.

The catch, of course, is in the proviso. The Reynolds judgment was important in potentially loosening up this country's rigid libel laws. But it also put the emphasis on careful and balanced journalism. On this, the judge in yesterday's case found The Telegraph wanting, having failed either to put the charge properly to Mr Galloway or to maintain due caution in its accompanying coverage of the purportedly "incriminating" papers. That is a pity for Fleet Street, which could clearly use more case law to build on the precedent provided by Reynolds.

The libel laws in this country are far too restrictive, protecting mostly the rich and powerful from due scrutiny. But in this case, it must be said, the plaintiff had a particular right to some protection. Mr Galloway is not everyone's favourite politician. He is particularly not the favourite MP of the right-wing press. His relations with Arab regimes deserve the most critical scrutiny. But when it comes to allegations as serious as corruption and even treason, then it behoves a paper to do all in its power to check its facts and give the object of its accusation a full chance to reply. The judge found against the newspaper in this case. But Fleet Street should not allow that to prevent it from continuing to push at the boundaries of an oppressive law.

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