London’s Mayor Ken Livingstone today launched a High Court challenge to the decision to suspend him from office for four weeks for likening a Jewish reporter from the Evening Standard to a concentration camp guard.
The Standards Board for England found Livingstone’s comments to be “unnecessarily insensitive and offensive”, and sufficient to bring the office of the Mayor of London into disrepute.
However, he claims that finding was “wholly untenable”. He appeals against both that finding and the decision to impose a four week suspension.
He is asking one of the country’s top judges, Mr Justice Collins, to quash the decisions, made by a three-man panel in February after a complaint by the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
The complaint followed the incident at a party, at which Livingstone asked Evening Standard reporter Oliver Finegold if he was a German war criminal and then said he was like a concentration camp guard.
Opening the case today, Livingstone’s counsel James Maurici told the court: “Finding what was said was of sufficient gravity to bring the office of Mayor into disrepute is wholly untenable.”
He said that the Board of Deputies “never wanted or intended that a suspension should result” from what had happened.
Arguing that the comments did not bring the office of Mayor into disrepute, Maurici said in written submissions: “Ken Livingstone, having hosted a function to mark the twentieth anniversary of Chris Smith MP coming out as gay, was off-duty and on his way home when he was door-stepped by an Evening Standard journalist. The Evening Standard were not invited to and were refused admission to the function.
“Ken Livingstone was suspicious of the reasons why the ES were present, that suspicion was reasonable in the circumstances: Ken Livingstone’s genuinely held political views as to the association of the Evening Standard and Associated Newspapers with right-wing politics; hostility shown towards him by Associated Newspapers over many years as well as intrusion into his personal life; the robust relationship to be expected between politicians and tabloid journalists.
“Ken Livingstone has a long-standing antipathy towards the Evening Standard and Associated Newspapers based on the support given by Associated Newspapers to fascism and its hostility to minority groups.
“The journalist knew of that antipathy and was aware that reporters from Associated Newspapers could expect what he called ‘joshing’ from Ken Livingstone.
“Ken Livingstone was approached by the journalist who initiated an exchange that was, from Ken Livingstone’s perspective, unwanted. He made it clear he did not wish to be interviewed.
“The journalist nonetheless pursued him repeatedly asking him the same question and did not desist once it became clear that Ken Livingstone did not wish to respond to him.
“Ken Livingstone was not conducting the business of the Greater London Authority or of the office of Mayor when the journalist made and persisted with his unwanted approach. The exchange was a private one.”
Maurici quoted a comment by William Rees-Mogg in The Times that the Standards Board’s decision was to “inflate trivial disputes of the late evening into matters of state”.
He said that while some Londoners would take the view that they would have preferred Mr Livingstone not to use the words he did, others supported his expression of his view.
And, he said, even some of those who were against it support his right to freedom of speech as “a colourful politician expressing forthright views”.
He added: “Mr Livingstone has long held well-documented, lawful and, we say, political views as to the association of both the Evening Standard and its owners, Associated Newspapers, with far right-wing politics.”
The hearing which is scheduled to last four days continues.