You thought 'War and Peace' was a saga ...

The latest row between the Mayor and the 'Evening Standard' could be great journalism or a politically motivated smear. Either way, stand by for pistols at dawn. Joia Shillingford reports

What on earth is the poor Londoner to make of the dust-up between The Evening Standard and the capital's Mayor, Ken Livingstone? Last week the Standard was running what looked like a decent story about how one of Livingstone's lieutenants Lee Jasper, in charge of London's equalities and policing has been using his high office to look rather too kindly on one of his friends. At the very least, the mayor's office has a case to answer, but this isn't just about "a story". This is Chapter 37 of War and Peace.

Veronica and Ken don't get on. Veronica (Wadley), editor of the Standard for nearly six years, is naturally Tory in outlook, schooled in the ways of The Daily Mail, and learned her trade at a time when the "Loony Left" couldn't help feeding the tabloids' prejudices. Ken Livingstone, once the embodiment of that Loony Left, has risen to far greater success and political prominence than his opponents think is right. His popularity is resented. Not bad in mud-throwing opposition, he could never "do" government, surely?

But that is not all. Both are restless souls who thrive on antagonism. So Veronica announced, on becoming editor of the Standard, that she would oppose Ken's congestion charge with all her might. Ken can't help picking old sores, so he accused a Standard reporter of being a concentration camp guard (a reference not particularly to his Jewishness but to Associated Newspapers "Hurrah for the blackshirts" headline in the 1930s).

There was another episode when a Standard employee, on leaving a party, fell 15ft over a wall, hurting himself quite badly. It was said that Livingstone had been in some way responsible. The allegations petered out, but the animosity lived on.

Occasionally, one or the other tries to bury the hatchet. Early in her reign, Ken sent Veronica a letter inviting her to lunch, but never keen on the front-of-house stuff she never got back to him. And just two months ago, Veronica and Ken seemed to kiss and make up, with Livingstone attending the launch party for the Standard's supplement, The 1000: London's Most Influential People, and meeting Wadley for the first time. "Actually Veronica was rather taken by the fact that Ken turned up," says someone close to her. "It was quite a big moment for her." Unable to resist the contrarian in himself, when asked by his retinue how the encounter had gone, Ken said: "She touched my arse." Those who know Wadley say this is unlikely.

The current fog obscuring last week's story is that Veronica has gone overboard for Boris (Johnson), Dave's friend, who wants to be Mayor, and with whom she used to work. Ken, of course, is long past the stage of being jealous, but he knows well enough that Boris, with the Standard's backing, is a formidable opponent. You don't have to be a calculating politico to see that he might be being ganged up on.

So when a story appears, over several days, claiming that Lee Jasper, a key aide of Ken, could have misappropriated funds granted by the London Development Agency to a former colleague, no wonder the hackles rise. Is this an admirable piece of journalistic endeavour or a politically motivated smear?

That the author of the story is Andrew Gilligan he whose Today programme report on Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction at 6.07 one morning nearly brought down the government, and who is also a friend of Boris Johnson would fuel anybody's paranoia. But Gilligan, scarred by the WMD affair, is nobody's stooge. "He is totally motivated by getting stories, that's what really gets him going," says one journalist who knows him well. "He is a very difficult man to manage, and the idea of Veronica or anyone bullying him into writing something that wasn't right is absurd. Besides, if anything, politically, he is liberal, and I guess would be more sympathetic to Ken than to the right."

In a press conference last week, Henry Bonsu, director of Colourful Radio, spoke for many. He said to Ken Livingstone: "A lot of people think this is a political smear campaign to try to attack you in the run-up to the election. However, some black-led groups feel that those organisations which are not within the 'Caribbean business network' don't have as much chance of getting a grant or some help from the LDA or any other authority within the GLA as those who are caught up within that nexus."

There is evidence, though, that the LDA does fund groups with no links to Lee Jasper's cronies and it audits them too.

Livingstone's office has been forceful in defending Jasper, whose political history goes back to the 70s and 80s, while not always addressing the specifics of Gilligan's allegations. The row rumbled on a blog until late on Friday, with both sides studiously talking past one another.

While Livingstone feels he is being picked on by London's only paid-for paper, Wadley too is under pressure. Circulation has long been on a downward path, accelerated by the arrival of the freesheets, although the ABCs showed a recent steadying of the ship. In November, the ABC circulation figures put the Standard at 291,991, compared with free paper circulation of 400,513 for its London Lite, and 495,950 for Murdoch's TheLondonPaper.

By taking on Livingstone, the Standard invites comparison with the old paper of the 1980s which did so much to support Mrs Thatcher and Lady Porter. It risks alienating readers who voted for Ken and a lot of London's ethnic minorities, about 30 per cent of the capital's population. Livingstone is no pantomime villain and the paper has never been at its most knowing when dealing with race.

The Standard says the LDA is taking legal action against Brixton Base, which received a lot of LDA funds, some of which remain unaccounted for. Whatever the rights and wrongs, Livingstone will give little ground willingly. He says the Standard's story is "a tissue of lies" and "a racist smear campaign".

How long before it's pistols at dawn for Veronica and Ken?

Comments