Big bother? More questions to answer for Galloway

By Dominic Ponsford and Roger Pearson

The Daily
Telegraph wants to take its libel battle with MP George Galloway to the
Lords after its Appeal Court bid to overturn the MP’s £150,000 libel
victory failed.

On the same day that the Appeal Court returned its judgment, The
Guardian revealed that the Big Brother star is facing a fresh Serious
Fraud Office investigation over his alleged involvement in the Iraq
oilfor- food corruption scandal.

The Appeal Court ruling has been
interpreted as making it “extremely difficult” for journalists to rely
on a public interest defence in libel trials.

Telegraph deputy
editor Neil Darbyshire said: “We are naturally disappointed by today’s
ruling and will study the details carefully before seeking leave to
appeal against the decision to the House of Lords. There are criticisms
of the tone and style of some parts of our coverage, which we will also
examine further.”

Galloway was unavailable for comment because he was still in the Big Brother house.

The
Galloway versus Telegraph legal battle dates back to April 2003 when
reporter David Blair found documents in the Iraq foreign ministry that
alleged Galloway had received payments of more than £375,000 a year
from the Saddam Hussein regime.

The paper had called Galloway a “greedy crook” who used Hussein’s cash to fund a luxury lifestyle.

Galloway successfully sued the Telegraph for libel, and in December 2004 won damages of £150,000.

The paper had relied on the “Reynolds”

libel
defence of qualified privilege – not that the allegations were true,
but that the paper was responsibly reporting on a matter of public
interest.

Sir Anthony Clarke, Appeal Court Master of the Rolls,
ruled that the newspaper’s embellishment “with relish” of allegations
against Galloway, contained in the Baghdad documents, was fatal to this
defence.

The Telegraph now faces a costs bill of £1.5m, which includes £260,000 for Galloway.

Sir
Anthony said: “It [the Telegraph] 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.”

Discussing the Reynolds
defence, he said: “So far as English law has progressed to date, the
adoption of defamatory statements contained in reports made by others
has been treated as fatal to a defence of qualified privilege.

“The
question may arise in an appropriate case whether the law should be
more flexible, and not adopt quite such an inflexible rule. It does
seem to us that the tenor of the European Court decisions would support
a more flexible approach, in which the nature and extent of the report
would be no more than a factor, albeit an important factor, in deciding
how the balance be struck on the facts of a particular case.”

However,
ruling it was not necessary to decide these questions in this case, he
said: “How any such balance is to be struck depends upon all
circumstances of the particular case, and here it is plain that the
judge took the view that The Daily Telegraph had gone a long way to
adopt and embellish the allegations in the Baghdad documents.

“Indeed, it had done so with relish. He was in our opinion entitled to reach that conclusion.”

Darbyshire
noted that the Court of Appeal had not challenged the authenticity of
the documents on which the original story was based and agreed that
publication of these documents was in the public interest.

He
said the court had also agreed that there was “some force” in the
Telegraph argument that there was “no reason to think that the
information in the documents was not inherently reliable”.

He added: “There are many questions about Mr Galloway’s relationship with the Saddam regime that have yet to be answered.”

Libel
expert Caroline Kean, from law firm Wiggin, said: “I think the courts
are going to have to grasp the Reynolds defence and give clear guidance
on it, either with this case in the House of Lords or the next one that
comes up.

“Making every case rely on coverage being so neutral makes it extremely difficult for newspapers.”

She
said it appeared a newspaper could only make use of the Reynolds
defence with a story that was “so neutral, probably nobody would ever
read it”.

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