As you may have read, former Labour M.P. George Galloway has won a 150,000 pound ($288,000) libel judgment against the conservative U.K. rag, the Daily Telegraph. The Telegraph falsely asserted that Galloway, an anti-war M.P., had taken secret, illegal payments from Saddam Hussein's regime prior to the war against Iraq. It based its claim on documents it purportedly found in a bombed-out government building in Baghdad.
Some have been downplaying the importance of the judgment, saying, among other things, that the amount of the judgment was not substantial. I'll happily agree with that argument -- with anyone who sends me $288,000. This argument also ignores the fact that under the British rule, the Telegraph has to pay Galloway's attorneys fees and costs, reported to be $2.33 million (1.2 million pounds). Assuming the Telegraph paid its own attorneys a similar amount, the Telegraph is out some five million dollars.
At his blog, Sully Joe sniffs that "the libel verdict (sic) won by Saddam-supporter George Galloway does not depend on the notion that Galloway's ties to Saddam were disproven." Well, that's true, sort of, but only because the Telegraph never asserted that the allegations were true.
At trial, Galloway denied the allegations under oath. It was the Telegraph that took the issue of accuracy out of the case, as this account reveals:
In one of the liveliest clashes, Mr Galloway objected to Mr Price's remark that documents "suggest and amount to strong evidence" that he was receiving money from his campaign and asking for more.
Mr Galloway replied: "If it's strong evidence, why aren't you pleading justification?"
Mr Price: "Because we have not suggested, or sought to say, that the documents are true. We merely say we have found them."
Mr Galloway: "You've just said they are strong evidence."
Mr Price: "They are."
Mr Galloway: "Then why aren't you pleading that they are true?"
Mr Price: "Because that's not what the Telegraph said. They said they were genuine and should be investigated."
Mr Galloway: "A blind man in a hurry might have concluded that from the coverage over those two days. Virtually everyone else in the country and the world concluded something quite different - that you were saying they were true but have not had the guts to plead that in this case."
Sully says that "Such a judgment wouldn't stand a chance in an American court - but then Britain's libel laws are far tougher than America's." Well, it's true the countries' procedural laws are different, but that's irrelevant under the facts of this case. Under U.K. law, the Telegraph would have to rebut the presumption that its allegations were false. Galloway denied the allegations and the Telegraph presented no evidence to support them. (The contents of the documents themselves are of course hearsay, and thus inadmissible to prove the truth of the matter asserted.) Even if Galloway had the burden of proof, as in the U.S., the evidence presented would support only one conclusion -- that the paper's allegations were false.
(Of course, an American plaintiff -- if a public figure, like Galloway -- would also have to prove the defendant's malice, but Sully is addressing only the truth of the allegations, not the defendant's state of mind.)
The judgment was not based on the fact that the Telegraph didn't give Galloway enough time to respond, as Sully claims. The Telegraph's defense was a "neutral reporting privilege," which means it was simply reporting the fact of allegations made by others. But the Court found otherwise, concluding that the paper went beyond reporting the contents of the documents and in fact endorsed the authenticity of the statements made in the documents:
The judge also decided the tone of the Telegraph's coverage was "dramatic and condemnatory... it went beyond the documents and drew its own conclusions".
When it came to the Telegraph's defence of its leader articles - which the paper justified as being fair comment on the allegations - the judge again dismissed the paper's defence.
He said the articles - entitled "Saddam's little helper" and "Galloway's gall" - made assertions that were not restricted to comment.
"I accept the leaders are defamatory of Mr Galloway and that their 'sting' is factual rather than comment. It is the difference between tentative comment and a rush to judgment," Mr Justice Eady said.
In short, the Telegraph admitted that it couldn't prove the allegations against Galloway and Galloway, through his own testimony established the allegations were false. No matter how much Sully -- and Conrad Black's Canuck toady, David Frum -- wish otherwise, the Telegraph libeled Galloway and Galloway proved the paper a liar.