By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Britain suspends free speech

Here’s a thought from The Guardian about Ken Livingstone, the democratically elected mayor of London, who has been suspended from office for making an anti-Semitic remark to a reporter: Livingstone, the paper notes, is “a politician with the biggest personal mandate in Europe.”

Not that it would be acceptable to remove even a lowly neighborhood-watch chairman for exercising his right to free speech. But for the shadowy, unelected, three-member Adjudication Panel to suspend someone re-elected by a landslide in 2004 only serves to underscore what a reprehensible assault on free speech this is. At least when the Republicans tried to remove Bill Clinton over his sexual escapades, the effort was led by elected members of Congress.

(By the way, I’m assuming that The Guardian has its facts straight. I can understand how Livingstone might have the largest mandate in Britain. Even Prime Minister Tony Blair represents just one parliamentary district. But I’m thinking about France, where the president — Jacques Chirac — is chosen in a national election. Was Livingstone’s margin in one city really larger than Chirac’s in all of France?)

Coming at the end of a week when British pseudo-historian David Irving was sentenced to 10 years in an Austrian prison for denying that the Holocaust took place, this is a pretty ominous moment for freedom of speech in Europe.

Livingstone, who is expected to challenge his month-long suspension, is quoted as saying:

This decision strikes at the heart of democracy. 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 got into trouble for an exchange with Oliver Finegold, a reporter for The Evening Standard. The Guardian recounts that exchange thusly:

The incident occurred last February as Mr Livingstone left a party marking the 20 years since former culture secretary Chris Smith became Britain’s first openly gay MP. In a tape-recorded exchange, he asked Mr Finegold whether he had ever been a “German war criminal”.

On being told that the reporter objected to the remark and was Jewish, the mayor said: “Ah, well you might be but actually you are just like a concentration camp guard, you are just doing it because you are paid to, aren’t you?”

Pretty nasty stuff, of course, and it was only right that Livingstone should have landed in trouble with voters, with the media — that is, with anyone other than unelected hall monitors. Livingstone has also been whacked with 80,000 pounds’ worth of costs — or approximately $140,000.

Guardian columnist Mark Lawson blames everyone — the “three blokes that nobody has heard of” and Livingstone himself, for refusing to apologize and thus defuse the situation. The entire exchange between Livingstone and Finegold is online here. Livingstone does come across as quite a jerk. If London doesn’t have a provision for a recall election, it ought to get one.

As for The Evening Standard, its editors seem to be exceedingly pleased with themselves, posting the audio of the exchange on the paper’s Web site, This Is London, along with a tease to “[r]ead the FULL story in tonight’s Evening Standard.” The splash headline on the paper itself: “MAYOR KEN SUSPENDED.” And if I’m reading the blurry subhead correctly, it says, “‘He has damaged his own reputation … and that of the Mayor’s office,'” apparently a quote from the “three blokes.”

Yes, Livingstone damaged his reputation. And the “three blokes” damaged the reputation of Britain as a free country where people can speak their minds, no matter how polluted their minds might be.

Discover more from Media Nation

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.


Outrage upon outrage


Encouraging news about Jill Carroll


  1. Wes

    The Brits rolled over on all free press matters when the infamous Hutton Report emasculated to a great extent the BBC. Murdoch owns Blair’s (and New Labour’s) soul, and God help those who dare to challenge their objectives.The Mayor was indeed out of line, but this nonsense smacks of the old USSR.

  2. Anonymous

    Sure glad nothing like that could happen here. (Right Justice Marshall?)

  3. neil

    Britain suspends free speech? A grandiose conclusion. So they spank public officials for making stupid remarks differently there than they do here. If the mayor of New York had made a similar remark he’d have faced a similar fuss–it would have taken a different form, is all. The right to free speech is not absolute. For one thing, it only means we don’t throw you in jail for what you say. Except sometimes. Doesn’t mean you are exempt from consequences at your job. Go out in the hallway at work and shout a racist remark, and see what happens. And when you sue to get your job back, tell the judge you were just exercising your right to free speech.Public officials in particular have an obligation to mind their tongue. They are always speaking ex cathedra ie, the mike is always live. The amount of Livingstone’s mandate is irrelevant. It should not exempt him from the wrath of the mighty Adjudication Panel, if others not so popular must abide by it. Europeans prefer more nanny govts than we do. They have councils that tell you where you can plant your rose bushes. Burden of proof in libel law is different in Britain too–doesn’t make it the USSR. Our public officials routinely get the boot because of careless remarks, Trent Lott being most recent. I remember Earl Butz too, and his talk of “loose shoes”. We force our guys to resign, providing the fig leaf of a sudden urge to spend more time with one’s family, rather than having some dotty Council of Manners emerge from its evil lair and issue a…one month suspension? Which engenders indignation on both sides, which was their goal. Eh, big deal. Not exactly exile to the gulag. Our system is obviously so much better. But the result, curiously, is the same. After some folly, the miscreant expends political capital to ride out the shitstorm. If he’s got enough, he gets to stay. When Lott cast himself out, did you say “America suspends free speech”? Why not, shouldn’t Butz and Lott and their ilk be allowed to speak their minds? After all, they were merely exercising their right of free speech too.They could just as easily have suspended the mayor for a different kind of lapse of conduct. Too-loud neckties. Eating with the wrong fork. Public drunkenness. Lechery. Just so happens he said something offensive first. So it’s not an issue of freedom of speech per se.

  4. Dan Kennedy

    Trent Lott and Earl Butz absolutely had a right to speak their minds. And we had a right to scream and yell until they resigned. The solution to offensive speech is more speech — not the Adjudication Panel.

  5. Specks

    There’s something very uncomfortable with the way this played out.

  6. neil

    Dan by the same logic Livingstone has the right to say whatever he wants, and the panel has no right to stop him. But they do have the right to suspend him from his job, and if “free speech” is more important to him than keeping his job, then he’s free to go to Speaker’s Corner and keep speaking, and the whole thing’s moot. It’s a workplace issue. You are free to blurt out any racist foolishness you like and the govt won’t arrest you. But your employer has the right to act. Codes of conduct proscribe employee behavior including speech. In this case the workplace is London City Hall. A panel exists (the BBC has a good explainer about the extent of its powers) whose function is to enforce this Greater London Authority code of conduct. Employees are not exempt from abiding by this code just because they were elected rather than appointed. Livingstone signed the code of conduct when he got elected, and the panel concluded he “brought disrepute to the office”.If the Brits think this panel abused its authority or is susceptible to political influence then that’s for them to rectify. Even that can work both ways–they could feel intimidated enforcing their code against a popular official, but if they are going to enforce it at all they should do so irrespective of popularity.People can take issue with specific decisions such as this one but there’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of a workplace enforcing its own code of conduct which includes limits on speech.

  7. neil

    Coincidentally Alex Beam in today’s Globe talks about how Larry Summers’ supposed pro-Israeli tilt may have contributed to his ouster from Harvard. And sure enough Alan Dershowitz one of Summers’ defenders brings up “free speech” as an issue. He says Lorand Matory was the “chief architect of the putsch”. I saw Matory on Emily Rooney’s show and he didn’t come off well–he was one of those guys she couldn’t get to stay on point or shut up.The question Beam gets to is, was anti-Semitism the driving engine behind the coup? Ruth Wisse answers that “it’s the point of view of many who watch these things closely.” It is curious that the accusations of infringement of free speech tossed around recently all happen to be about the Jews or those who wish them ill. The accusation more often has a taint of political context to it, seems to me, than a pure concern for the right itself. Let’s see the next time somebody spouts a blatantly racist remark about say blacks, who jumps to the defense of free speech, if that person loses their job as a result.

  8. DonT

    re David Irving: According to an article by the BBC (, David Irving received a 3-year sentence. The law under which he was convicted allowed for a 10-year sentence.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén