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'Galloway is a hot, blustering bully - but I'm staying on his case until the very end'

By Christopher Hitchens

The experience of spending some hours on a public platform with George Galloway is disappointingly similar to the experience of watching him on al Jazeera, or on Syrian state television. One learns exactly nothing that one did not already know.

When addressing audiences in the Middle East, his metaphors of martyrdom and rape, and his celebration of the "resistance" forces are a little more florid, perhaps, but I shall have to concede that even in New York he has the nerve to tell an audience that the atrocities of September 2001 were essentially the fault of the United States itself. That was not his finest moment - and nor was it by any means his lowest one - but I began to see again his essential appeal, which is an utter indifference to embarrassment.

It had taken me some time to bring him onto a fair field with no favour. After his loud and rude refusal to answer direct questions from a Senate sub-committee, and after his personal insults to me when I had asked him some questions of my own, and after the almost uniformly good press that he achieved for these tactics, I challenged him to a public debate.

A challenge was also issued to me and Galloway by the Labour Friends of Iraq, a group which brings together people who are divided on the intervention itself but which offers help to the embattled secular and democratic forces in that stricken country. Despite repeated applications, Galloway declined any formal reply and tersely said "not under your aegis" when approached in the Commons by Gary Kent, the director of the group.

As Galloway's book tour was in preparation in the United States, however, he was subjected to the same challenge by a number of interested parties, and began to see that it might be hard to avoid. His agents and representatives did their best to discourage any deal, most notably by demanding that he get twice the fee (to cover travel costs) that I would receive for the same event, but after I had said that I would in principle do it for nothing - which is what we would both have been paid if it was a Labour-type event - they acceded. (If there's any dough left after the other night, the organisers have rather decently offered me a third of it.)

So there we were. Obviously I am suspect as a juror in my own cause, but put yourself the following hypothetical case. Mr A challenges Mr B, saying that he appears on the available evidence to be a handmaiden to dictators and a recipient of their hospitality. Mr B replies that Mr A is a piece of ordure, or some other unmentionable substance. The riposte is hailed as a tremendous piece of repartee, as well as a full and complete answer to the challenge. Perhaps my own professional journalistic colleagues do not wish to seem to favour one of their own, but I have always had difficulty in seeing the pith or brilliance of this.

In point of fact, having quoted Mr Galloway's recent speech in Damascus ("The Syrian people are fortunate in having Bashar al-Assad as their leader") and having further pointed out that Mr Assad decided not to show his face in New York last week, as the UN investigation into the murder of Rafik Hariri rolled up more and more Syrian agents, I was given a full answer by being told that I had metamorphosed back from a butterfly into a slug, with a consequent trail of slime in my wake. I did not have the lepidopteral presence of mind to point out, at that moment, that butterflies pupate from sturdy and furry caterpillars.

I reiterated my point that the Syrian people have no say in their own good fortune, since they inherit a Dauphin from an absolute monarch. That did me no good at all in some circles. What I should have done, I now realise, is to say that George Galloway knows all about slime because he's so far inside the posterior passage of a murderous dictator that one can barely glimpse his Gucci buckles. That would have won me golden opinions. I suppose it would also have re-defined the old term "slug-fest".

I have often wondered how a certain type of public figure manages to keep his fluttering stomach under control. To all appearances they somehow remain as cool - as Aunt Dahlia's chef, Anatole, once phrased it - "as some cucumbers".

Mr Galloway is hot and blustering rather than cool, and he may not have appreciated that I am staying with him until the very end of this argument, but he does manage to survive by making extraordinary claims and then moving on to the next appointment. When I asked him in public if he would deny having discussed oil-for-food allocations with Tariq Aziz in person, he said that he would sign such an affidavit right away if I had it on me. That boast is one that I shall give him the chance to make good upon, if he has a pen handy.

So on one hand we have a bipartisan Senate committee, and on the other we have a man with a big and dirty mouth. And the coverage splits the difference - quite often in the bigmouth's favour. I don't think this is completely explained by the way that the British press cowers before our restrictive and archaic libel laws - which do not apply in the United States. I believe that there is a sick and surreptitious fascination with people of a certain thuggish unscrupulousness, from Mike Tyson to Henry Kissinger, and that many press hacks have a secret vicarious love for such people.

I wish them joy of this. They enable Mr Galloway to lecture a captive audience in Syria, fawning upon a despot and saying that with "145 military operations a day" that the people he describes as "these poor Iraqis… are writing the names of their cities and towns in the stars" and then to fly to America to commiserate with the mother of one of the dead soldiers. (Galloway was, remember, expelled from the Labour Party in 2003 after it interpreted some of his comments as an incitement to attack Coalition troops.)

On Wednesday night in Manhattan, however, he made the mistake that all demagogues and bullies make, and forgot that he was on television and on the record, and sought only to please his own section of the crowd. He answered questions with crude abuse. I have plenty of time and patience to spare on this, and was addressing myself to a larger audience, and I never ask a question to which I don't know the answer. So we shall see, shan't we?

• Edited highlights of the debate, broadcast last night on Radio 4, can be accessed at

• Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the Daily Mirror. His briefing on Galloway can be read at

Listen to the debate



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