Reuters News Agency this week reports that London Mayor Ken Livingstone is to face a disciplinary hearing regarding allegedly anti-Semitic remarks made during a heated exchange with the Evening Standard’s Oliver Finegold back in February of this year. The matter relates to a series of curt retorts by an irritated and hounded Mayor in response to an aggressive, unsolicited telephone call from Mr Finegold after a function in February. In a clear attack at the journalist’s mercenary cynicism, Livingstone suggested that he was “Just like a concentration camp guard…doing it because you’re paid to.” Mr Finegold replied that, as a Jew himself, he found this comment offensive, and there followed a substantial press campaign on the part of the Standard to expose the “racist” Mr Livingstone.. A leading Jewish group has since made a complaint, and the Ethical Standards Officer has concluded that the Mayor must face a disciplinary hearing. The adjudicating panel will be able to impose penalties ranging from censure to a five year ban from public office.
The imposition of any penalty on Mr Livingstone would constitute a massive coup for the Evening Standard, a subsidiary of Associated Newspapers, the company which also owns the Daily Mail. The company’s traditional hostility towards Livingstone and other progressive public figures predates the Mayor’s comfortable electoral defeats of their own favoured Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates. For this company to put themselves forward as defenders of pluralism and racial tolerance would be so disingenuous as to reek of the most base hypocrisy and perverse duplicity. For while Mr Livingstone’s record on race relations is pretty well beyond reproach, their publications have for some time poisoned the intellectual life of this country with a barely-concealed racialism. It would be no exaggeration to suppose that, in the context of the 1930s and 1940s, Jews fleeing the Nazi terror would have got little sympathy from newspaper editors obsessively determined to prevent the country being “swamped” by asylum seekers.
While Livingstone supported Mandela and the African National Congress in their struggle for apartheid, Associated Newspapers denounced them as terrorists. Indeed, when we consider that Associated Newspapers was unequivocally supportive of Hitler’s Germany right up until the eve of the Second World War – by which time the persecution of the Jews had been ongoing, and very much public knowledge, for many years – the sheer cheek of the complainants seems quite astonishing. The adjudicating panel would be advised to consider that, that same February, senior Associated Newspaper staff appeared at a Daily Mail party dressed in Nazi uniforms. As yet the company have not issued an apology in respect of this incident.
Mr Livingstone’s choice of words, taken at its worst, was certainly ill-considered, but by no reasonable standards can the remarks be taken as racist. Indeed, they may be taken to form the basis of a coherent argument, indicting those, like concentration camp guards, who tow the line in the face of humanitarian crises and are morally complicit in the large-scale slaughter. The connection between a Nazi who “just followed orders” and a reporter who blindly follows his newspaper’s official line despite its virulent crypto-racist leanings is far from tenuous. It is Associated Newspapers’ brand of cheap journalism, characterised by simplistic, chauvinistic rhetoric and bigotry that helps racism take root in a society. Furthermore, it is a mark of the moral fibre of these people that they are happy to use so sensitive an issue as this one as a means of attempting to settle a personal grudge.
One further point is of interest, and that is the role of the particular Jewish group that has made the complaint. That they chose to complain about this remark – which in its content is not in the slightest way derogatory towards Jews – suggests a regrettable tendency towards hysterical censorship at almost any mention of the Holocaust, presumably on the basis that such a mention is disrespectful to the memory of the victims. To set the Jewish tragedy aside as something that can never be likened to anything else, even in abstract discussions on moral complicity, is to make a grave error. It is to fail to consider that a mass slaughter occurred because people and institutions allowed it to happen – to give the Holocaust an otherworldly, transcendental status would only serve to dehumanise it and stifle debate about human complicity – moral, social and political – in these crimes. The memory of the victims of the Nazi Holocaust, so often cited as the legitimate basis for such reactionary sensitivities, would be best served by abandoning pretensions to an elevated status that cannot be spoken about. As indeed would the memories of countless indigenous Americans, countless Armenians, and countless Rwandans.