London’s controversial mayor, Ken Livingstone, is celebrating a victory today after a High Court judge overturned his suspension from office for remarks made to a journalist back in February last year.
Livingstone’s remarks do not win him much sympathy. On being approached by the Evening Standard’s Oliver Finegold, he asked “Were you a German war criminal?”, and, on being informed that Finegold was Jewish, said “you are just like a concentration camp guard”. Mr Justice Collins described this as “unnecessarily offensive” and “indefensible”.
But Livingstone was not being anti-Semitic or just plain abusive; his comments had a political context. The Evening Standard has “a long-standing antipathy” to him, and its parent, the Daily Mail, has an ingloriously right-wing history.
Livingstone apparently told Finegold to “work for a paper that doesn’t have a record of supporting fascism”, a reference to the Mail’s stance in the 1930s.
Whatever the merits of Livingstone’s position, the reaction was clearly disproportionate. The Adjudication Panel for England, the body charged with disciplinary cases involving local government, found him guilty of bringing his office into disrepute and suspended him for four weeks. The suspension was deferred pending the outcome of the court case.
Justice Collins described the suspension as “clearly wrong”, and said, in words that deserve attention, that Livingstone was entitled to express himself “as forcibly as he thought fit … Surprising as it may perhaps appear to some, the right of freedom of speech does extend to abuse”.
In Britain as in Australia, local government has already gone a long way down the path of being treated as a mere administrative convenience (or inconvenience) rather than a vital element of democracy.
But if elected local officials could be suspended merely for expressing “offensive” views, they would have been reduced to no better than salaried public servants.
For now at least, that danger has been averted, and Red Ken will survive to fight (and no doubt offend) another day.