Trouble at the Telegraph
Galloway's libel victory

I've been following the George Galloway libel story with a personal as well as a political interest – I was working for the Telegraph at the time of the smear – so I was doubly satisfied to see my former senior management come a cropper in the High Court last week.

The atmosphere in the Telegraph office back in April last year was bitter, but subdued. Most journalists, in my section at least, were openly anti-war, and many had been on the huge Stop the War Coalition demo on 15 February 2003. We were also in the midst of a protracted battle for union recognition, which we won a few months later.

Given this backdrop, us hacks instantly clocked this story for what it was: a politically motivated attack aimed at discrediting an anti-war movement that had unleashed rebellious sentiment across the country, even stoking discontent among the paper's own staff.

The fact that the story was a blatant smear was also clear from the start. Even if one naively accepted the documents "discovered" by the Telegraph at face value, the obvious inference was that someone was using Galloway's name to fiddle money out of the UN oil-for-food programme.

What the documents expressly did not demonstrate that Galloway actually was in Saddam's pay, as the Telegraph suggested he was, implicitly in their news presentation and more explicitly in their leader column. Nor was there a shred of evidence to that effect.

Nevertheless, I had my doubts over whether Galloway would win his libel action – not because of any demerits in his case, but out of a more basic suspicion of the British judicial system. I found it awfully difficult imagine a High Court judge ruling against an establishment bastion like the Telegraph and in favour of a firebrand leftist troublemaker like Galloway.

As it turned out, my worries were misplaced – not only did Galloway win, his victory was unequivocal. The damages payout of £150,000 was towards the upper end of the scale, indicating a punitive element, and David Eady's judgement systematically trashes the Telegraph's feeble defence case.

One question arises: given the political significance of this case, why wasn't there a ruling class stitch-up, à la Hutton Report? There are two answers to this. The first is that had the Telegraph won, it would have set a very awkward precedent: that the media could get away with smearing any public figure on the basis of skewed presentation of dubious evidence.

But that alone isn't enough to explain the thumping one-sidedness of the High Court verdict. There wasn't a trace of reluctance in David Eady's judgement, nor were there any sophisticated caveats. This raises the intriguing possibility that disgust at the conduct of this war – and in particular, at the warmongers' contemptuous attitude to legality, civil rights and truthfulness – has penetrated deeply into the heart of the legal establishment itself.

One final nuance. There has been a change of ownership at the Telegraph since the Galloway smear, with Conrad Black being ejected in disgrace and the Barclay twins buying up the newspaper group. Unusually, however, Black's senior editorial appointments remain in place.

I wonder how long this state of affairs can last. The Barclay twins were certainly keen to settle the case – an out-of-court deal was scuppered at the last minute by the Telegraph's senior editors. The Barclays recently appointed Andrew Neil to oversee the Spectator – a similar move to bring the Telegraph to heel wouldn't be surprising.

That would be deliciously ironic: a scurrilous attack aimed at dividing the anti-war movement backfiring so spectacularly that it ends up dividing the pro-war conservative establishment instead.

But even if we don't see faction fights breaking out at the Telegraph, Galloway's victory is in itself a victory for everyone who opposed the war. Cigars all round for those who stood by him – and shame on those few backsliding fainthearts who didn't.