Padraig Reidy: George Galloway’s dear tweeter letters

George Galloway's lawyers have written to Twitter users who retweeted a Hadley Freeman comment.

George Galloway’s lawyers have written to Twitter users who retweeted a Hadley Freeman tweet.

TV presenter George Galloway has taken to wearing a black fedora, indoors. I know this, because I have seen him doing so on at least one of his TV shows.

It’s a strange look, somewhere between a puffy Nathan Detroit, though combined with a black suit and white shirt, the hat also evokes Robert Mitchum’s chilling Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter.

Why has George Galloway started wearing a hat indoors? What has taken hold of him? What kind of person wears a hat indoors anyway? The only people who really get away with being pictured in hats, indoors and out, are National Hunt trainers and rabbis. And come to think of it, you rarely see a National Hunt trainer indoors. They’re usually outside, training horses, or watching horse races or being interviewed about how well (or sometimes poorly) their horse did in the race.

I can say with relative certainty that Galloway is not a National Hunt trainer. I am a bit more nervous about declaring whether or not he is a rabbi. Issues between George and some Jewish people being fraught of late, I would not like anyone to think that an assertion of Galloway’s non-rabbiness was a suggestion of anything else.

Galloway has been in the news after his solicitors issued letters demanding apologies from various people who tweeted and retweeted a comment by Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman, who had tweeted about Galloway having “said and done” things she believed “crossed the line” between being “anti-Israel” and “anti-Semitic”.

Galloway tweeted that he would sue. Freeman offered to delete the tweet (and subsequently did). But all in vain: Galloway had made his mind up, telling Freeman “too late”. He also warned others against retweeting Freeman’s original post. Subsequently it has emerged that Galloway’s lawyers are writing to Twitter users demanding not just an apology, but £5000+VAT by varying dates in March to cover the cost of sending the letter.

The solicitors firm, Chambers of Bradford, are not widely known as libel specialists. You would think, given the changes in libel laws in recent years, that one would make sure your lawyers knew what they were doing.

Chambers appear to be focused on immigration, serious crime and fraud and personal injury, among other topics. But above all, they are, according to their own website “calculated risk takers”, who are “not afraid to take on challenges that would daunt many others”.

They boast that their ethos “is to ensure that the ordinary person has access to good quality legal advice as public bodies, insurance companies & multi-national companies which has led us to take on many ‘David & Goliath’ legal struggles for justice”.

This does not seem to tie in with the pursuit of one Twitter user who received a letter from Chambers demanding money. That person, with only 70 followers on Twitter, told the Guardian: “I’m not a politician. I’m not remotely influential. I deleted it. I have been suffering terrible health problems [since receiving the letter]. I’m on antidepressants and suffering from chest pains.”

Chambers’ apparent risk-taking, would seem to have backfired rather spectacularly.

Private Eye magazine said it had “drawn the letter to the attention of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) which takes a dim view of this sort of ‘speculative invoicing’”.

Meanwhile, lawyers including David Allen Green, Mark Lewis and Mark Stephens, vastly experienced in free speech, libel and privacy, have been offering support to the recipients of the letters. Some lawyers are apparently working with the people behind the “SuedByGalloway” twitter account, which is giving anonymous advice.

Mark Lewis commented “Mr Galloway’s spokesman says that the letters weren’t shown to the client before they were sent. That is a matter of practise and the SRA must investigate”. (McKay has subsequently told Index on Censorship that Mr Galloway had seen the letters, and it was McKay who had not).*

There is a temptation to think what might happen if all these cases — since each tweet is a separate action — did come to court. As with all libel cases, a lot is down to semantics: what exactly does Freeman’s original tweet really mean? Does it mean what Galloway’s solicitors letters’ take it to mean?

And then there is the context of the Defamation Act 2013, which requires that a claimant show that a statement “has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the claimant”.

Moreover, there is the new defence of “honest opinion”, in which a defendant need not prove the absolute truth of the statement (on a topic such as this, how could one do that?) but that he or she sincerely held the view stated as an opinion, and that an honest person “could have held the opinion on the basis of any fact which existed at the time the statement complained of was published”.

It would be genuinely interesting to see if and how a court could draw a line between “staunch anti-Zionism” and anti-Semitism, but in the end, I’m not sure how much use it would be for anyone. Most hate-crime laws already come down to circumstance and perception, just as libel cases, and particularly those involving unprovable abstracts, can only really come down to people’s individual views.

This case is just a manifestation of the usual Galloway bluster. It’s entirely feasible that he was insulted by Freeman’s comment, but his pursuit of her and the people who retweeted her, even after apologies and deletions, is petty and thin-skinned. It is not the behaviour of a gentleman. But then, neither is wearing a hat indoors.

* This article was updated on March 5, 2015, to reflect that Ron McKay told Index on Censorship that Galloway had seen the solicitors’ letters before they were sent

This column was posted on March 5, 2015 at

Twitter Joke Trial: Appeal judgment due tomorrow

An appeal decision in the Twitter Joke Trial is to be handed down by Lord Chief Justice at the Royal Courts of Justice tomorrow morning [27 July].

Last month Paul Chambers appealed his conviction for having jokingly tweeted in January 2010 that he would blow Nottingham’s Robin Hood airport “sky high” if his planned flight to Northern Ireland to visit his now-fiancee would be affected by the weather.

He was found guilty at Doncaster magistrates court of sending a message via public electronic communications that was “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character, contrary to the Communications Act 2003”. Chambers was fined £385, and ordered to pay £600 in costs. He also lost his job.

The trial has become a landmark case for freedom of expression in the UK, highlighting the tension between the legal system and advances in social communication. Chambers has had the support of some leading British comedians, including Graham Linehan, Stephen Fry and Al Murray.

Writing for Index on Censorship in November 2010, comedy writer Graham Linehan said:

This is the kind of case that would make me refuse jury service. It obliterates my confidence in the judicial system. Why should I let people who don’t “get it” have any power over me or anyone else?

We’re trying to evolve here, and the people who don’t get it are slowing us down. If they can’t keep up, they need to get out of the way.

Comedian and broadcaster Paul Sinha added:

The irony is that all over the worldwide web, anonymous internet warriors are only to happy to incite hatred and murder, and surely this is where the appropriate resources should be directed.

David Allen Green provides some useful background to the two-and-a-half year saga here.

Follow the story on Twitter using the hashtag #TwitterJokeTrial

Bloggers don't do it for the money, Leveson Inquiry told

Blogger and media lawyer David Allen Green has praised social media at the Leveson Inquiry today.

Green, legal commentator at the New Statesman, argued that bloggers and Twitter users should not be viewed as “rogues”, adding that social media users often act responsibly and regulate themselves by being transparent.

“Most alleged abuses by people using social media can often be traced back to someone who may or may not have an agenda,” he said.

He added it was “wonderful” that mainstream sources were co-operating with social media users, noting that “almost every journalist now has a Twitter account” and that the platform is increasingly used to distribute breaking information quickly.

Revealing he has made about “about £12” from advertisements on his Jack of Kent blog, Green told Lord Justice Leveson bloggers do not blog for the money but to “engage in public debate…[and] be part of a civic society.”

He claimed the mainstream media’s use of photographs from social media sites such as Facebook was “analogous” to the phone-hacking scandal, noting that newspapers do it “routinely” without recognising that it is a form of copyright infringement.

The editor-in-chief of the Press Association, Jonathan Grun, also appeared today. He said the news agency, which provides a “constant stream” of stories and video to major British news organisations, placed great emphasis on accuracy, adding that its customers needed to be able to rely on it without making checks.

He said most editorial mistakes occur “by accident”. He described one occasion in which a PA reporter with 30 years of experience confused someone named in a story with another person of the same name. Grun said it was the agency’s “gravest editorial error”, adding that the reporter was so ashamed that they resigned.

There will be a directions hearing for Module 2 of the Inquiry, which will examine the relationships between the press and police, later this afternoon.

Hearings continue tomorrow, with evidence from representatives from Facebook and Google, the Information Commissioner’s Office and journalist Camilla Wright.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson