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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 December 2004, 17:37 GMT
Libel case puts media in the dock
By Torin Douglas
BBC media correspondent

The judgement in the George Galloway libel case is a severe blow to the Daily Telegraph, now under new ownership since the departure of Lord Black and the takeover by the Barclay Brothers.

George Galloway
George Galloway was awarded 150,000 damages for the libel

Its publishers must find 150,000 in damages, plus the costs of both sides, estimated at over 1.2m.

Mr Galloway says the paper has been "severely caned".

Few lawyers and media experts in the court disagreed.

But is it a blow to the media as a whole?

Before the judgment, many publishers and broadcasters regarded this as another test case - the latest of several in recent months - over what may or may not be published.

Reynolds defence

In particular, it was a test of the Reynolds defence of "qualified privilege", so called after a case brought by the former Irish prime minister Albert Reynolds against the Sunday Times in 1999.

In that case, the Law Lords ruled that the media could publish information, even if it turned out to be untrue and defamatory, provided the public had the right to know it and it was the product of responsible journalism.

Lord Nicolls, who gave the leading judgement, laid down 10 points which courts might take into account when deciding whether to admit a plea of qualified privilege.

They included the seriousness of the allegation, the source, the steps taken to verify it, the urgency of the matter, whether the claimant was asked to comment and give his side of the story, and the tone of the article.

In the Galloway case, the Telegraph's stories were based on documents found by its reporter in the Foreign Ministry in Baghdad, Iraq.

[The Telegraph] did not merely adopt the allegations. They embraced them with relish and fervour.
Justice Eady

They suggested that Mr Galloway had been in the pay of Saddam Hussein.

The paper argued that it had a duty to publish such documents, even though it could not prove they were true.

It also claimed that its coverage was neutral - despite headlines such as "Memo from Saddam: We can't afford to pay Galloway any more" and a leading article headed "Saddam's Little Helper", which used the word "treason".

The judge, Mr Justice Eady, said Telegraph executives were deluding themselves that they were covering the story neutrally: "They did not merely adopt the allegations. They embraced them with relish and fervour. They then went on to embellish them."

He said the newspaper took no steps to verify the information nor did it raise queries or call for an investigation into the documents.

Daily Telegraph
The Telegraph was criticised by the judge for its reporting.

And though it had interviewed Mr Galloway over the phone, it had it not given him a chance to read the documents or have them read to him, so he was unable to make meaningful comment about them.

So the judge ruled that the Telegraph was not protected by the Reynolds defence or any other form of qualified privilege.

The newspaper is seeking leave to appeal, but media lawyers who were observing the case believe that it is unlikely to succeed.

They say the real lesson for the media is to act fairly and report such contentious documents neutrally.


Mark Stephens, a partner at solicitors Finer Stephens Innocent, said: "I think it's a major shot across the bows of the media.

"You clearly have to give a right to reply to the person who is the target of the story and the judge took the Telegraph to task for not doing that in this case."

Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism at City University, agreed.

"The judge decided the Telegraph had over-egged the pudding.

"They might have been right to put the documents in the public domain, but their description of them and their reportage was full of pejorative phrases that were unjustified by the evidence they had.

"The judge decided it wasn't responsible journalism."

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