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

Milly Dowler case not only reason for Inquiry, says Leveson

Lord Justice Leveson has dismissed claims that the Milly Dowler case was the only reason his Inquiry into press standards and ethics was set up.

Agreeing with the lawyer for victims of phone hacking David Sherborne, Leveson said the past month of evidence of press intrusion and harassment should “dispel any doubt” that the hacking and deletion of messages on the murdered schoolgirl’s phone was the only reason the Inquiry was taking place.

This follows what Sherborne dubbed had been a “storm of misreporting” after the Metropolitan police announced that the News of the World may not have deleted the girl’s voicemails and giving her family false hope she was alive.

Yesterday Richard Caseby, managing editor of the Sun, accused the Guardian of having “sexed up” their original coverage of the case in which they reported the News of the World was responsible for deleting Dowler’s messages.

Yet it remains uncontested that the tabloid did hack into her phone.

This morning Sherborne told the Inquiry that hacking victims’ solicitor Mark Lewis was contacted on Tuesday evening by a Daily Mail reporter who asked him if the Dowler family will be giving money back in light of revisions.

The Dowlers had previously issued a statement through Lewis, stating they had a “clear recollection” that the police had told them the now-defunct News of the World had deleted their daughter’s voicemails.

Lewis told BBC News the reporter’s actions were “appalling”.

Leveson reiterated the significance of the issue, stressing that it was in the public interest to be resolved in an “orderly manner”.

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

Newspapers "too big" to take on, Leveson Inquiry told

A former police officer told the Leveson Inquiry today that his bosses at the Information Commissioner’s Office warned him the press was “too big” to take on over private investigators.

Alec Owens, who was a senior investigator in Operation Motorman, an ICO-led investigation into allegations of data protection offences by the British media, revealed he had found notebooks in private investigator Steve Whittamore’s home with 17,500 entries identifying each reporter and newspaper who had commissioned a task. The “Pandora’s box” of information also included invoices to and payments from newspapers, criminal record checks, car registration checks and ex-directory telephone numbers.

Owens said, “we could identify the newspaper, the journalist, Whittamore, who he used, the blaggers, the corrupt people, and we had a paper chain right the way up and down.”

However, a “shocked” Francis Aldhouse, the then deputy information commissioner, told Owens the press were “too big” to take on.

Owens said that no journalists had been questioned or charged in Operation Motorman, adding, “I wish we had the opportunity to look at all this.” He contended that the evidence found was “strong enough to stand on its own” to prosecute journalists, noting that some were using Whittamore 300 or 400 times.

Owens also revealed that the mobile phone number of abducted schoolgirl Milly Dowler and her family’s ex-directory telephone number were featured in Whittamore’s notebooks, as well as the names of other victims of phone hacking at the News of the World.

Operation Motorman, carried out in 2003, investigated the use of a private investigators by the media to obtain personal information. In 2004, Whittamore was arrested and given a conditional discharge. In September of this year, Owens gave a disk of his files on the operation to the Independent newspaper, revealing previously unpublished details of the scale of the press use of private investigators. Just weeks before coming to the Inquiry, Owens’s home was raided under a warrant by Cheshire police, in an operation he described as a “fishing trip.”

Earlier in the day, former Number 10 director of communications Alastair Campbell called for media reform, labelling the British press “putrid”.

In his three-hour testimony, Campbell described a “culture of negativity”, with the Daily Mail being the most “relentless” for its crime and health scares. He said parents whose children have had measles should blame negative coverage over the MMR vaccine, and cited social workers as only ever being defined negatively in the tabloids, which he said impacted on recruitment, morale and the services they provide. He said the press’s treatment of the Dowlers and McCanns was “not atypical” but rather something that happened to anyone who became a “news commodity”.

He went on to say the paper was “utterly the product of one person”, and questioned editor Paul Dacre’s assertion that he had never published a story based on illegal information. Campbell argued that editors may genuinely not know “that the law is being broken left, right and centre”.

Of journalists, he said, “they are the spin doctors. They are the ones deciding what the line is…The line then gets reported as public opinion.”

While stopping short of accusing the Mail of phone hacking, Campbell said he was “unprepared” to say the paper had “never done anything untoward”.

He said that during his time at Downing Street he was “very concerned” about how many stories about Cherie Blair and her life coach Carole Caplin were getting out to different parts of the press. While admitting he had no evidence of hacking, Campbell said in his witness statement that it was “at least possible” that this is how stories were revealed.

Campbell claimed that those who argued loudest for freedom of the press were “terrified” of regulation, but that the majority of journalists had nothing to fear. Those who were terrified, he said, were scared of losing “the ability to do this sort of journalism they have been doing over the last decade or so.”

He agreed with Guardian journalist Nick Davies that a public interest advisory body should be introduced to help guide reporters. He also argued in favour of a new regulatory body that would not have current media representatives sitting on it. He advocated a US-style system of fact-checking on newspapers as well as league tables to see which papers adhered to the code of practice.

Also speaking today was Mark Lewis, a solicitor for victims of phone hacking. He described the surveillance carried out on him and his family by News of the World private investigators as “truly horrific.” In an impassioned testimony, he went on to say that News International sought to “destroy” his life and “very nearly succeeded”.

Lewis also refuted claims in a dossier compiled by NI lawyers that he had leaked information to the Guardian, accusing solicitor Julian Pike and News of the World lawyer Tom Crone of “complete arrogance and idiocy”.

The hearing continues on Monday, when we will hear from Francis Aldhouse, the former ICO investigator on Operation Motorman, solicitor Charlotte Harris and author Peter Burden.

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

Gerry McCann calls for press reform at Leveson Inquiry

The father of missing toddler Madeleine McCann called for change in the British press at the Leveson Inquiry today, saying that a “commercial imperative is not acceptable.”

In a powerful reminder of some of British media’s darkest days, Gerry McCann, with counsel to the Inquiry Robert Jay QC, ran through a series of Daily Express and Daily Star articles from September 2007 to January 2008 insinuating that he and his wife, Kate, had killed or sold their daughter, who went missing in Portugal in May 2007.

One headline read, “It was her blood in parents’ hire car, new DNA tests report”. Kate McCann said this was untrue.

Jay said there were about 25 similar stories over a three to four month period implying the McCanns had hidden their daughter’s corpse in the car. Another article was built around a Portuguese story that quoted a police officer saying he did not know if Madeleine was dead or alive. His quotation of “probably dead” turned into the headline “She’s Dead” on the front page of The Mirror, McCann said.

David Sherborne, the lawyer representing core participant victims, last week called the red tops’ treatment of the McCanns a “national scandal.”

Describing legal action as a “last resort”, the McCanns accepted £550,000 in damages and apology from Express Newspapers in March 2008 for what the publisher admitted were “entirely untrue” and “defamatory” articles. The damages were donated to the fund set up to find the toddler.

Gerry McCann, while conceding the press had been useful on occasions of appeals launched to help find his daughter, said that the “tremendous speculation” in reports that followed his daughter’s disappearance was unhelpful. “It’s crass and insensitive to say that engaging with the media to find our daughter meant the press could do what they liked,” he said.

Questions remain as to how the News of the World gained access to copies of Kate McCann’s diaries that she had written to her missing daughter. McCann revealed that the journal had been taken in the police clear-out of their holiday apartment in Portugal, and it was later deemed by Portuguese police as of no use to the investigation.

McCann said the paper’s printing of her diary in its entirety and without her knowledge showed “no respect for me as a grieving mother or as a human being, or for my daughter”. She added the experience left her feeling “totally violated.”

Wrapping up his testimony, Gerry McCann said that “lives are being harmed” on daily basis by stories that are distorted or factually incorrect. Of holding journalists to account, he said, “if they are repeat offenders they should lose their privilege of practising.”

Earlier in the day, solicitor Mark Lewis said that when journalists talk about press freedom, “it’s not freedom of the press they want, it’s freedom to do what they like.”

Lewis, who represents the Dowler family and was recently revealed as having been under surveillance by a private investigator hired by the News of the World, spoke out against statutory regulation of the press. He said that self-regulation “should be what journalists do and newspapers do themselves, not the PCC.”

He also warned of a “reverse chilling effect” if people cannot afford legal fees to bring a claim forward to stop certain information about them being printed.

Voicing his support for libel reform, Lewis advocated a cheaper and more accessible system in which it would be possible for libel or privacy cases to heard in county courts and not just the high court.

“Libel is something for the very rich,” he said, arguing against merely abolishing conditional fee agreements — in which fees are only payable in the case of a favourable results — would lead to people not being able to bring cases forward.

Also giving evidence today was journalist Tom Rowland, who argued that defamation lawyers acted as a “quality control mechanism”. He added that it was “wrong” to say that “having lawyers at your elbow inhibits press freedom”.

Sheryl Gascoigne, ex-wife of footballer Paul Gascoigne, also called for improved journalistic standards. While conceding media attention “comes with the territory” of being married to a celebrity, Gascoigne took issue with inaccurate reporting. “If you’re going to print anything about me, just make sure it’s factual,” she said.

She added, “the onus is on you as the victim to prove your innocence, not the journalist to prove what he has printed is true.”

She gave a detailed account of her experience of press intrusion, noting that papparazzi had camped outside her home, and that one photographer followed her as she drove to a police station to try to escape from him. Heavily pregnant at the time, Gascoigne was told by the police that they were not able to take action unless the photographer had touched her.

The Inquiry continues tomorrow, with anonymous evidence to be heard first from “HJK”, for which the court will be closed to press and public. Sienna Miller, JK Rowling, Max Mosley and Mark Thomson will follow.

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