Thursday 2 December 2004

Treading carefully.

George Galloway has been exonerated in court. Well, perhaps "exonerated" is too strong a word: he has won his libel case against The Telegraph. Back when the damning documents were first published, Johann Hari wrote this:

There are two possible motives for [saluting Saddam Hussein's "courage, strength and indefatigability", as Galloway did]: admiration for Saddam, or gratitude for his cash. Both options stink: either he was paid by Saddam, or Saddam didn't need to offer him cash. I for one will think better of Galloway if he is a crook. If he was just doing this for the old, foul motive of an extra $375,000 a year, he is a bit less immoral than if he backs Saddam's atrocities sincerely.

Absolutely. I said something similar at the time myself (though I wasn't blogging then, so you'll just have to take my word for it). Even if Saddam had paid him (which, I have to say, he most definitely didn't), it wouldn't have been, strictly speaking, a bribe: a bribe is what you pay someone to do something that they wouldn't do if you didn't pay them. Had Saddam been paying Galloway (which he wasn't), it would have constituted gratitude, not bribery. And the important thing to remember (which Galloway seems to be ignorant of) is that Saddam could be grateful to Galloway even if Galloway had never had any intention of helping Saddam. And, for that last sentence, I don't think I need a legal disclaimer.

The judge's decision is interesting.

Mr Justice Eady 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."

Telegraph foreign correspondent David Blair had earlier told the judge how he had found the documents inside the Iraqi foreign ministry.

The judge said that although Mr Galloway was interviewed by telephone on 21 April, he was not given an opportunity to read the Iraqi documents beforehand, and neither were they read to him.

The reporter who contacted him, Andrew Sparrow, only summarised the claims relating to funding of the Mariam Appeal, but did not tell him the newspaper was planning to publish claims about personal enrichment, the judge said.

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

So there's no suggestion here that the documents were forged. Their authenticity has been disputed by the prosecution, but not, it seems, by the judge. The problem is that The Telegraph didn't follow basic procedures when it came to allowing their subject a fair right of reply — in which case, they did deserve to lose this case, as that is totally unprofessional of them, and they should have known better.

I have two questions. Had The Telegraph given Galloway copies of the documents and allowed him, say, twenty-four hours to respond; had they then printed his response in full; had they published the documents with no editorial comment about Galloway, but restrained themselves to merely providing a translation and saying where they'd found them; would they then have lost this case? And would Galloway's reputation have suffered in the same way?

One thing that any idiot can learn from a quick browse through history is that tyrants take their friends with them. One of the keys to running a successful tyranny is to arrange matters so that it is in everyone's interests that you stay in power: you divide your country into factions and fractions who are guaranteed to start a bloody civil war when you go, ensuring that succession can never be smooth; and you make damn sure that everyone who's on your side stands to suffer badly if you lose power, thus ensuring that coups from within your own inner sanctum are unlikely. Every time you get on the good side of a tyrant, you're taking a gamble on whose career — or life — will last the longest, his or yours. Tyrants are great believers in solidarity: you can guarantee that, when he goes down, he will try to take you with him.

David Blair, who found the documents, said in court that

it would have been an "extraordinarily elaborate exercise" for anybody to have forged the document.

"Then of course such a person would have had to hope that someone might chance upon this document from the thousands of pages in the many hundreds of folders within the hundreds of filing-boxes in the room - even if they happened upon the room at all - and that it would find its way to a journalist," he said.

He has a point, but it strikes me that this has implications beyond the Galloway case. One journalist grabs a couple of folders from a choice of many thousands, in a building that's being looted, and just happens to come across incriminating evidence? This is equally unlikely whether the evidence is forged or genuine. My own personal theory is that it wouldn't have mattered which box Blair picked: that every box contained a document that implicated a public figure somewhere. Some of those documents will have been genuine — as the oil-for-food scam is making all too clear — and others will have been forgeries — forged by the Saddam regime itself. But such forgeries would only be made about people that Saddam regarded as allies — again, even if they did not think of themselves as his allies — and so would still, in their own way, be damning. As a general rule, the less freedom there is in a nation, the more truthful are its paranoid conspiracy theories.

Finally, if I can avoid a libel case for a few more sentences, I just have to pour some ridicule on this:

Mr Rampton said Mr Galloway had only met Saddam on two occasions.

"The first time was in 1994 when, as he himself freely admits, he put his foot in his mouth by making some remarks which were open to interpretation - and needless to say were interpreted - as some kind of fawning praise for Saddam Hussein's personal courage and strength.

"It wasn't what he meant to say, it was not in his mind to say, because he had no respect or admiration for Saddam Hussein whatsoever."

Really, just how open to interpretation is this:

Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.

Not very, in my opinion.

Furthermore, I have seen Galloway speaking in public. Everything the man says is utter bollocks, but he ain't half eloquent. His speaking is assured, confident, unhesitating, well constructed, persuasive, and really quite brilliant. I don't believe he is even capable of accidentally saying something other than what he means to say. And that's a compliment.

1 comment:

Tom Grey said...

Galloway winning is a travesty.
I hope, but doubt, that some libeled conservative will use the judgement to win a big suit case.