April 23 may be the feast day of England’s patron saint, but the dragon being lanced—if not quite slayed—this St. George’s Day was George Galloway, a Scottish MP and anti-war activist accused by the Daily Telegraph of having accepted large sums of money from Saddam Hussein’s regime. The Telegraph splashed its scoop Tuesday, explaining that the paper’s Baghdad correspondent had found documents showing that Galloway had received almost $600,000 per year from Iraqi exports under the oil-for-food program. On Wednesday, the paper released a second memo claiming Saddam himself had refused the MP’s request for more funds. According to the Telegraph, reporter David Blair and his Iraqi translator came across the files in a tiny room next to the foreign ministry’s archive. While everything in the main archive had been “burnt to a cinder” and the contents “reduced to ash,” most of the folders in the small room apparently survived a cruise missile strike, fire, and looters.
Galloway denounced the accusations as “a pile of black propaganda” and “intelligence hocus-pocus,” and said he would take “whatever legal action [is] necessary” to defend himself. Traced to what was almost always described as his “luxury villa” in Portugal, he told the Guardian that based on descriptions, the documents “bear all the hallmarks of having been either forged or doctored and are designed to discredit those who stood against the war.” He added, “The idea that such documents have, as if to order, come to light just days after the massive assault on Baghdad, the looting and destruction of its ministries and government buildings and the chaos in the country, must be treated as highly suspect.” The Telegraph’s Blair responded:
I think it would require an enormous amount of imagination to believe that someone went to the trouble of composing a forged document in Arabic and then planting it in a file of patently authentic documents and burying it in a darkened room on the off-chance that a British journalist might happen upon it and might bother to translate it. That strikes me as so wildly improbable as to be virtually inconceivable.
On Thursday, the Independent published a redaction of an article Galloway wrote for Tribune, a Labor Party publication, in which he claimed he was “a victim of the war against the Iraqi people.” Referring to the mystery of the documents’ discovery, Galloway observed, “Forgery and deception have, of course, been a hallmark of the whole Iraq story, from the fake British ‘dossier’ to the false invoices for uranium from Niger, with which Iraq was ‘months’ away from producing a nuclear bomb.” He called the documents a “helpful diversion” from the “invasion, destruction and occupation of Iraq,” and “a useful, if reckless, joyride for journalists more keen on witchunting me than uncovering the lies, forgeries, deceptions and war crimes of two of the world’s most powerful states, which are currently laying waste to one of the world’s most wretched countries.”
The Telegraph’s accusations sent the rest of the British press into a frenzy. In the tabloids, the Sun screamed, “Kick him out,” and sent a reporter to his “hillside bungalow,” to try, unsuccessfully, to get an interview by offering Galloway “a tempting wad of 50,000 Iraqi dinars” (now worth less than $25). The Mirror urged its readers, “Don’t Judge George Yet.” Galloway “is a doughty fighter in the libel courts,” the paper observed. “Already he and his supporters are questioning the apparent luck of a Daily Telegraph reporter in finding an incriminating letter—written in Arabic—among tens of thousands of abandoned files. … Many people will have disagreed with Mr Galloway’s position over the Saddam regime. But few would agree with the security services fabricating evidence to destroy a Member of Parliament.”
The Times admitted, “The timely unearthing of this cache of papers, secure in a lined box helpfully marked ‘Britain’ in the midst of a looted and missile-damaged building, is certainly a boon to Mr Galloway’s critics.” The editorial called on Galloway to come clean about his links with Iraq—especially about the Mariam Appeal, a group he set up in 1998, originally to raise funds to provide medical aid to an Iraqi child but which later became a wide-ranging campaign against U.N. sanctions, under whose auspices he has traveled to Iraq as many as 14 times in the last three years.
The Guardian praised David Blair’s discovery as “a fine piece of enterprising reporting” and said it was essential that the truth of the matter be established. Galloway could pursue a libel claim, but “it is by no means certain to settle the question of who is speaking the truth. … The focus of the case might be not so much on the truth of the allegations as on the reasonableness of the publication.” The editorial concluded, “Mr Galloway would be wise to waive any parliamentary privilege and to publish all the accounts for the Mariam Appeal. … [He] is fighting for his own political life. Full transparency is his only option.”
Newspaper profiles of Galloway were stuffed with colorful anecdotes. The Times noted that the man widely known as “the MP for Baghdad Central” is “notoriously good at defending his reputation. He has won at least 20 such cases, earning [nearly $400,000] and boasts that one such victory, against the late Robert Maxwell, enabled him to buy a red open-top Mercedes.” Despite his left-wing beliefs—he described the fall of the Soviet Union as the “biggest catastrophe” of his life—Galloway owns property in Portugal and London, a restaurant business in Cuba, and “has a liking for Kenzo suits.” Writing in the Telegraph, Alan Cochrane, a fellow native of Dundee, said, “That George Galloway has continued so long in public life is a tribute not just to his roguish, but almost entirely phoney, charms but also to the propensity of the British Left to believe that every action of the British and American governments—most especially the latter—is evilly inspired.” He recounted a tale from Gorgeous George’s days in his home town:
Under the tutelage of Galloway, Dundee … twinned itself with Nablus on the West Bank of the Jordan. It was an unlikely union that saw the PLO flag flying over the Gothic splendour of Dundee’s municipal buildings, but it quickly took on a farcical air when, as part of the twinning ceremony, the Mayor of Nablus was presented with a crate of whisky and a kilt by the Scottish delegation. What use a strictly teetotal Muslim, both of whose legs had been blown away in a terrorist explosion, would have had for whisky and kilts was never made clear.