Mayor of London Suspended 4 Weeks
Saturday, February 25, 2006
LONDON, Feb. 24 -- A disciplinary tribunal on Friday ordered London's outspoken mayor, Ken Livingstone, suspended for four weeks for causing "damage to the reputation of his office" by comparing a Jewish newspaper reporter to a concentration camp guard.
"His treatment of the journalist was unnecessarily insensitive and offensive," said the decision by the Adjudication Panel for England, an independent body that oversees the conduct of local officials. "The mayor does seem to have failed, from the outset of this case, to appreciate that his conduct was unacceptable."
The unusual punishment comes at a time when Britain, like Europe in general, is wrestling with the definitions and limits of free speech. Muslims around the world have angrily protested a Danish newspaper's publication of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Many Muslims have argued that Europe has laws against denying the Holocaust but has no similar protections for Muslims.
The decision divided London's political world. Critics said Livingstone's comments showed a bewildering lack of appreciation for the pain caused by using Holocaust imagery to insult Jewish people. The mayor and his allies called it an absurd and disproportionate punishment in which an appointive panel has reversed the will of the London electorate.
"This decision strikes at the heart of democracy," said Livingstone, long known as one of Britain's most combative politicians. "Elected politicians should only be able to be removed by the voters or for breaking the law. Three members of a body that no one has ever elected should not be allowed to overturn the votes of millions of Londoners."
Livingstone's suspension is set to begin March 1. He has the right to appeal to the High Court.
"It sends a clear message that people in public office should act and speak responsibly," said Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust. She said the decision showed a "recognition that there are consequences to what you say and do."
The issue centers on an exchange Livingstone had with Oliver Finegold, a reporter from the Evening Standard, as the mayor was leaving a reception in downtown London in February 2005. The newspaper has frequently criticized the mayor and his policies.
Finegold, writing in Friday's newspaper following the decision, said he introduced himself as an Evening Standard reporter and the mayor replied: "How awful for you. Have you thought of having treatment?"
Finegold was tape-recording their conversation, and audio of the following exchange was posted on the BBC Web site:
Livingstone: "What did you do before? Were you a German war criminal?"
Finegold: "No, I'm Jewish. I wasn't a German war criminal, and I'm actually quite offended by that. So, how did it go tonight?"