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Well, he started it

Under attack for his 'concentration camp guard' jibe, London mayor Ken Livingstone has fallen foul of the intolerant climate that he helped to create.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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The furore over London mayor Ken Livingstone likening a news reporter to a concentration camp guard after a party would be funny, if the moral of the story were not so grim.

Ken ‘Ban It’ Livingstone has spent so much of his seasoned life campaigning to censure people whose remarks could be construed as racist and offensive, this seems like a just punishment: he has fallen foul of the intolerant climate that he helped to create. Unfortunately, this is not simply a story about a po-faced politician getting his come-uppance. It reveals the petulant and censorious spirit of our times, in which references to the Holocaust are bandied about like common swear words and the response to anybody feeling offended is to call for official censure.

For those who missed it, the story goes like this. Following a party held to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of former culture secretary Chris Smith becoming the first openly gay MP, Livingstone was asked for a comment by Oliver Finegold, who announced himself as a journalist for the London Evening Standard. ‘How awful for you. Have you thought of having treatment?’ said Livingstone, followed by: ‘What did you do? Were you a German war criminal?’ Finegold told the mayor that he was Jewish and found the remark offensive, to which Livingstone responded: ‘Arr right, well you might be [Jewish], but actually you are just like a concentration camp guard, you are just doing it because you are paid to, aren’t you?’

Finegold asked, for the third time, for a comment on the party – only to be told: ‘It’s nothing to do with you because your paper is a load of scumbags and reactionary bigots.’ When the reporter replied that he was a journalist doing his job, Livingstone told him to ‘work for a paper that doesn’t have a record of supporting fascism’. According to the mayor’s office, the conversation ended with the reporter telling Livingstone to fuck off (1).

Since the story hit the news, Livingstone has been swamped with complaints and demands for an apology, from the Board of Deputies of British Jews; from the Greater London Authority, which Livingstone heads; from culture secretary Tessa Jowell and now prime minister Tony Blair (2). At the time of writing, Livingstone is refusing to apologise, because ‘why should I say words I do not believe in my heart?’.

This exchange is just bizarre; it is the reaction to it that is interesting. There is nothing new or shocking about the mayor behaving badly at parties – his long-running feud with the Evening Standard is well known, and thin-skinned journalists are quite entitled to take offence at being compared to concentration camp guards. But the way things have escalated into a war between self-styled victims, all using the imagery of the Holocaust to stake their claim upon the moral high ground, is a distasteful reminder of the low-level character of much public debate today.

Of course Oliver Finegold was offended by Livingstone’s insults. Most individuals would be. But aside from the fact that, before the age of spin, it used to be normal to treat reporters as scumbags, it is quite extraordinary that one politician’s remarks to one journalist should be referred for judgement to several layers of officialdom, from the local democracy watchdog the Standards Board of England right up to the prime minister, as though either Livingstone’s comments or a hollow, ritualistic apology would have a significant impact on British public life.

It is hard to understand why Livingstone let loose an apparently unwarranted stream of verbal insults upon some newspaper reporter after a party, let alone defend it. But it is just as hard to have sympathy with the reporter’s transformation into a celebrity victim of alleged anti-Semitism, or with the Board of Deputies of British Jews’ complaints that his remarks ‘demonstrated a gross insensitivity to, and a wilful disregard for, the feelings of appreciable numbers of those he is supposed to represent as holder of the office of Mayor of London, including but not limited to Jews and gays and lesbians in London’ (3). Attempting to present Livingstone’s hot-headed comments as examples of anti-Semitism and homophobia trivialises the Holocaust as much as Livingstone’s original comments.

But Livingstone is playing the same victimised game. Far more objectionable than what he said to Oliver Finegold in the heat of the moment was the justification he gave for it in the cold light of day: that reporters doorstepping guests at a gay party are on some kind of moral continuum with concentration camp guards in Nazi Germany. ‘I was pointing out that it’s the thin end of the wedge when reporters say they are only doing their job. If you continue to bark the same question time after time I believe it is harassment.’ (4) And his rants about the Evening Standard being a ‘fascist’ paper (a reference to the Daily Mail group’s one-time support for Hitler) smacks of the childish ‘You’re a fasch / No you’re a fasch’ bitching typical of Livingstone’s brand of anti-Nazi politics.

One characteristic feature of Livingstone-style anti-racism is to try to ban any racist speech or activity, on the spurious grounds that anybody witnessing a display of racism will be turned into a racist. This approach fits hand in glove with the promotion of ‘tolerance’ – which, in effect means telling everybody to be tolerant of other cultures while clamping down hard on anybody who refuses to play the game.

So the press releases that show up on the London mayor’s website as ‘related’ to the current dispute include ‘Mayor refers Evening Standard to Commission for Racial Equality’, ‘Mayor refuses permission for racist group to hold rally in Trafalgar Square’, ‘Ban National Front March says Mayor’, and of course, an open letter to home secretary Charles Clarke in support of the government proposal to ban incitement to religious hatred. In the same list are press releases titled: ‘Mayor to launch new drive to promote tolerance and respect’, ‘Mayor announces major initiative against racism and intolerance’, and ‘Faith leaders join Mayor for show of unity against intolerance’ (5).

So: ‘We have ways of making you tolerant’ – by banning any ideas that Livingstone’s anti-racists do not approve of. This provokes little objection when it comes to banning National Front marches, but raises a few more concerns when the definition of ‘fascist’ extends to anybody that Livingstone does not like – such as a reporter asking him for a comment on a party. This slippage is another feature of Livingstone’s kind of unthinking anti-racism, which has no qualms about taking the most spurious of grounds – such as the position taken on Hitler by the corporate owners of a reporter’s newspaper over half a century ago – to brand an opponent as an enemy guilty of some kind of fascist victimisation.

This, too, trivialises racism and the Holocaust through the promiscuous use of its imagery, and has very dangerous implications for free speech today.

Given Livingstone’s long and shameful history in peddling such an unsavoury approach to political debate, it is impossible to sympathise with his predicament now, or see anything noble in his refusal to apologise for his remarks. But a climate in which one off-the-cuff insult can be considered grounds for censorship and censure, in which public figures jostle for position to see who can condemn the most loudly, and in which this kind of circus passes for public and political debate, is no good for any of us. Livingstone helped bring us to this situation, but it won’t only be him who pays the price.

(1) Livingstone attacks ‘scumbag’ Standard, Guardian, 10 February 2005

(2) Blair says mayor should apologise, BBC, 16 February 2005

(3) Mayor censured over Nazi jibe row, BBC, 14 February 2005

(4) Why I wasn’t insulting Holocaust victims, 15 February 2005

(5) ‘Faith leaders join Mayor for show of unity against intolerance’, GLA website, 10 April 2003

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Topics Politics

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