George Galloway: an odd champion of free speech

George Galloway cancelled our interview because he didn’t like my question.

This was during the 2005 British general election. Galloway was campaigning for the Respect Party, which he launched after being kicked out of the Labour Party for, among other things, describing it as “Tony Blair’s lie machine.” I had spent the day in the hardscrabble East London riding Galloway hoped to win away from Labour’s lightweight incumbent Oona King and chatted informally with Galloway a couple of times. He promised me an interview later, after a community meeting where he and King were scheduled to speak.

Galloway wiped the floor with King that night. He is a rhetorical master and was in his element. “If you make war against Muslims abroad, he bellowed to cheers, “you’re going to end up making war against Muslims at home!”

When the speeches were finished, Galloway was mobbed by supporters and a few journalists, including an American woman who had a difficult time asking him anything without cooing. Sick of the softballs she was lobbing at him, I asked Galloway how he felt about the jailing of “your friend Tariq Aziz.” Aziz was Iraq’s deputy prime minister under Saddam Hussein and has since been convicted of crimes against humanity. Galloway had indeed described Aziz as his friend, but apparently he didn’t like my tone and growled “I don’t’ want to talk to that guy,” when one of his handlers brought me around for the interview. When another reporter, Johann Hari of The Independent, tried to pose a question, Galloway loudly denounced him as a drug addict.

This is the man who is now bizarrely being hailed as a martyr to free speech, ever since Canada denied him entry to this country because he delivered aid and money to Hamas, which Canada considers a terrorist organization.

To be clear, I think the case against allowing Galloway to come to Canada is paper-thin. Even if the decision follows the letter of the law, it is ridiculous to suggest that he poses any sort of security threat. He should be permitted to come to Canada and speak wherever he wants. Unfortunately, in a country where we’ve grown used cabinet ministers’ incoherent mumblings or refusal to deviate from prepared talking points, Galloway, with his flash and eloquent brogue, would make a positive impression.

But it’s worth remembering the man behind the charm. He reacts to unpleasant questions from journalists with belligerence and insults. He praised Saddam Hussein. And he once described the disappearance of the Soviet Union – one of the most murderous regimes in history – as “the biggest disaster of my life.” I’m confident that Canadians would tire of Galloway once they got to know him. 

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