December 08, 2004

David Aaronovitch: Damned by, ain't praise

It's strange this Galloway v Telegraph Group. business. Reports have been unanimous that Galloway won the case. That is, the judge in the case ruled that Galloway had been libelled by The Daily Telegraph. And yet Johann Hari, the BBC and now (well yesterday) David Aaronovitch have persisted in libelling Galloway in pretty much the same way that had The Telegraph coughing up £150,000 in damages and a possible £1.4 million in costs. Perhaps they think that the judge's ruling was on some technicality or that, post- Lord Hutton, a judge with integrity is an abberation. For those who think the former then here is the judgment itself. Sorry it's a pdf and it runs to 60 pages. I wouldn't have read it but I felt compelled to when David Aaronovitch wrote in yesterday's Guardian. , "The account of the finding of the documents by the reporter David Blair was not challenged, he himself was praised by the judge. " Now it struck me as very strange that a journalist might be praised by a judge for running with an article that had the judge describing his employers as "disingenuous", at best. Also for various reasons connected with his tenuous grasp of facts, I just don't trust David Aaronovitch. So let's search for "praise" or "praising" in the judgment. It appears in the following passage:

"There is something faulty about this logic. The documents did not publish themselves and the mode of their presentation was wholly under the control of The Daily Telegraph. The argument may have some superficial attraction. On the other hand, it is a little ironic that while the newspaper was, understandably., praising Mr Blair’s "superlative" detective work, and claiming that its scoop had led the news, it should also be seeking to distance itself from the consequences of the publication to the world at large."

So the closest the judge came to praising David Blair was to say that his "disingenuous" employers "understandably, praise[d] him". In other words he didn't praise him at all. But it gets worse. The judge looks into what the Telegraph. might have done to establish whether or not the documents it published were genuine. And the relevant passage in the judgment:

"Did the Defendant take any steps to verify the contents of the
Baghdad documents, in so far as they related to the Claimant,
by reference to independent sources of information, such as the
governments of the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, Mr
Fawaz Zureikat, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the
Home Office or intelligence sources, before publishing the
articles complained of?"

And it continues (eventually): "No one on the Defendants’ behalf
suggests that they did make such enquiries."

Now given that David Blair found the documents, should it not have fallen to him to at least try to establish their veracity? Anyway, according to Mr Justice Eady this rudimentary check wasn't undertaken and taking the judgment in total it appears that the failure to try to prove whether the documents were genuine was, among other things, an aggravating factor leading to such a high level of damages.

In fairness to David Aaronovitch I should point out that the judge did praise David Blair as a witness:

"Like the other witnesses in the case, Mr Blair seemed to me to be impressive and straightforward in his evidence. I have no doubt that he believed the documents he found were genuine and that they gave rise to legitimate questions – at least requiring the attention of serious investigative journalists."

but, in that, he was, as the judge said "[l]ike the other witnesses in the case".

but, of course, that isn't what David Aaronovitch said.

Another aggravating factor that Aaronovitch doesn't. lie about, because he doesn't mention it, is the fact that The Telegraph's. barrister - James Price QC - falsely attributed a written statement to George Galloway that he had referred to Barbara Amiel as Conrad Black's "Jewish. wife". Here's the relevant passage:

"One aspect of aggravation was the unfortunate attribution in cross-examination of anti-semitism. I am quite prepared to accept that it was a slip, in the heat of the moment, and that it was not intended to be put forward as part of the Defendants' case. It is necessary for me to consider exactly how it came about. Mr Price wished to refer to a fund-raising letter written by Mr Galloway for the purposes of obtaining support in these proceedings. In it he suggested that he had been attacked by The Daily Telegraph. because of his views on the Middle East in general and the Palestinian cause in particular. Wisely or unwisely, he referred to Lord Black (formerly proprietor of The Daily Telegraph) and his wife Barbara Amiel as being among Mr Sharon’s most vociferous supporters. Mr Price wished to put this document to him in the course of cross-examination. Before he did so, and I believe when it was not actually in front of him, he somewhat unguardedly said that Mr Galloway had referred to Barbara Amiel’s hostility towards him being due to the fact that she was Jewish. The document, of course, said no such thing."

Now here I have to say that the judge was being very charitable to James Price QC given the way The Telegraph. hurls bogus allegations of anti-semitism around sometimes.

Anyway, please read the whole judgment. I'm no lawyer and I would welcome any alternative view to my own. Here it is in html.

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