The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, is in hot water this week after being accused of making an anti-Jewish remark to a reporter for the Evening Standard. The London Assembly voted unanimously to censure him, but he has refused to apologies saying his comment may have been offensive, but it was not racist.
It appears that a reporter for the Evening Standard, a paper that famously detests Livingstone, was sent to report on who attended a reception to mark 20 years since Chris Smith, former arts minister, came out as gay. A photographer grabbed pictures of everyone present.
As Livingstone left the reporter pursued him asking questions repeatedly, in response to which Livingstone asked him if he was a concentration camp guard, simply carrying out orders and effectively hiding behind the political will of his paymasters. It was a comment made in the knowledge that the reporter was Jewish and obviously made with the intention of causing the same level of offence that the reporter was causing him. The Standard has, it seems, reported Livingstone’s private life in great detail and made many allegations against him in the past that he has found offensive and hurtful.
But now it seems everyone is offended – the Jewish community has claimed to be profoundly hurt by the comments and claimed that it is offensive and insensitive to compare someone to a Nazi, particularly givven the recent commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz etc etc.
I have to say I think Livingstone is right to refuse to apologise. He said yesterday, with refreshing honesty, that the easy thing to do would be to say sorry, but that he wouldn’t mean it. His comment was aimed at an individual who was behaving offensively. The paper concerned had apparently shown little interest in covering other receptions but chose to send a reporter and photographer to one celebrating homosexuality, presumably with the intention of covering it in a less than polite manner. The reporter claimed to be, in effect, simply following orders – which was of course the excuse used by those who worked at the concentration camps (which were not just a Jewish affair, incidentally – or is saying that ‘anti-Jewish’?)
In that context his remarks are understandable. In the context of a private conversation they aren’t even relevant to public debate. But the whole story has become politically charged with the Standard and their sister paper The Mail delighting in whipping up a frenzy, and it even became a topic of questions at a reception for the International Olympic Committee yesterday. But that’s okay – throw away our chances of hosting the Olympics for a front page ‘exclusive’, why not?
Yes, the remark was offensive to the reporter. It was meant to be. But it wasn’t aimed at Jews in general, so why the fuss? I worry that there are too many comunities around today who are willing to stifle discourse because they are ‘offended’ by it, and too many people who politely give in. We had it with a play set in a temple that was closed down after a riot in Birmingham because people who hadn’t seen it and didn’t understand the point it tried to make decided they found it ‘offensive’. And then there are the Christian groups who are taking the BBC to court for blasphemy after broadcasting Jerry Springer: The Opera. This is getting stupid. And the fact I feel uncomfortable ‘having a go’ at Jews for being upset about a comment about concentration camps is also worrying.
And here’s the main point, that seems to have escaped everyone’s attention. It was an anti-fascist remark, not anti-Jewish. It was intended to underline the point that the Standard appeared to be pursuing an anti-gay agenda, persecuting anyone in the public eye who is either gay or supportive of gays. Personally I don’t think Livingstone was nearly offensive enough.