By Joshua Rozenberg, Legal Editor
Last Updated: 1:43am BST 21/10/2006
Ken Livingstone, the London mayor, won his High Court appeal yesterday against a finding that he had breached his authority’s code of conduct by likening a Jewish reporter to a Nazi concentration camp guard.
The court quashed his four-week suspension from office, which had never been implemented, and ordered the Standards Board for England, which initiated the proceedings, to pay his costs.
Mr Justice Collins decided that the mayor had not been acting “in his official capacity” when he made “offensive” and “indefensible” remarks to Oliver Finegold of the London Evening Standard after leaving a party one evening. In addition, the judge found, Mr Livingstone had not conducted himself in a manner that brought his “office or authority into disrepute”.
But this did not mean Mr Livingstone’s actions were appropriate, Mr Justice Collins continued.
“His initial question: ‘Were you a German war criminal?’ was obviously intemperate. However strongly he felt about the impropriety of the journalist’s conduct, the remark was unnecessarily offensive,” the judge said.
In itself, that would not have led to the proceedings against the mayor.
“But, when he knew that Mr Finegold was particularly offended because he was Jewish, to go on to compare him to a concentration camp guard was indefensible. He should have realised it would not only give great offence to him but was likely to be regarded as an entirely inappropriate observation by Jews in general and those who had survived the holocaust in particular.”
Mr Livingstone “loathed and despised” Associated Newspapers, the publisher of the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail, “because of its past record of pre-war support for anti-Semitism and Nazism and what he regarded as its continuing racist bigotry, hatred and prejudice”.
Even so, the judge continued, Mr Livingstone could have apologised without compromising his feelings about the newspaper group and its employee. “Had he done so, it is likely that no action would have been taken against him.”
The case arose from a formal complaint by the Board of Deputies of British Jews. However, the Jewish representative body subsequently made it clear that it had never been seeking the mayor’s suspension. Mr Justice Collins said that the mayor had been “indulging in offensive abuse of a journalist”. But, “surprising as it may perhaps appear to some, the right of freedom of speech does extend to abuse”. It was important, he added, that any individual “knows that he can say what he likes, provided it is not unlawful”.
The judge overturned a decision by a case tribunal, set up by the Adjudication Panel for England, that had “failed to recognise the real distinction between the man and the office”.
Mr Livingstone exercised “real power” over millions of people and had “a unique position with unique powers”, and people were entitled to expect that he would conduct himself “to a high standard suitable to his office”, said the judge. “But it does not mean that, if he falls below that high standard, the office as well as he are brought into disrepute.”
Leaving court yesterday, Mr Livingstone again declined to apologise. He said that he had never claimed his remarks to Finegold were not offensive — “they were meant to be offensive: the behaviour of the reporter was offensive”.
Describing the ruling later as “a victory for democracy and common sense”, the mayor said that “those who have been elected by the people should only be removed by the people, or because they have broken the law”.
The Evening Standard said that the whole affair could easily have been resolved without costly and unnecessary legal action if Mr Livingstone had simply apologised for his remarks at the time.
“This is precisely what Jewish groups and this newspaper repeatedly urged him to do. It was his failure to do this which led to the complaint from the Board of Deputies.”