Too much personal history: the real reason why Ken will not say sorry

The Mayor of London's ill-chosen jibe at a reporter outside a party has blown up into a huge row involving the Prime Minister and the Olympic bid, so why will he still not apologise? Andy McSmith, political editor, reveals the answers
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The party is over. There is a man outside asking questions. One of the departing guests takes against him and offers verbal abuse. The man is offended. The guest adds more abuse. It is all over in a couple of minutes, however. There has been no swearing, no violence, no threats. The protagonists depart peacefully.

The party is over. There is a man outside asking questions. One of the departing guests takes against him and offers verbal abuse. The man is offended. The guest adds more abuse. It is all over in a couple of minutes, however. There has been no swearing, no violence, no threats. The protagonists depart peacefully.

Most people have witnessed worse than this before they leave school. But the brief confrontation between Ken Livingstone and a journalist has taken on monstrous proportions. The Prime Minister has become involved. Reports have appeared in overseas newspapers, it has been suggested that the row has damaged London's bid to host the 2012 Olympics, and it threatens to create a constitutional crisis in the way London is governed.

The Standards Board for England has received complaints from the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The board is expected to announce tomorrow whether the complaints warrant a formal investigation. If it goes ahead, and finds against Mr Livingstone, it has the power to suspend or disqualify him from office. How could it have come to this?

Last week, the Evening Standard treated it as the biggest story in the capital, running with it every day, usually on the front page. This was in contrast to the previous week, when it did not think the story worth reporting at all.

The now infamous exchange occurred on Tuesday night, almost a fortnight ago, as Mr Livingstone was leaving the City Hall, where there had been a party to mark the 20th anniversary of the decision by the Labour MP Chris Smith to be the first politician to "come out" as gay.

When the reporter outside, Oliver Finegold, said he was from London's Evening Standard, Mr Livingstone retorted: "How awful for you. Have you thought of having treatment? What did you do? Were you a German war criminal?"

Mr Finegold, whose family fled Russia in the 1880s to escape the pogroms, did not find this funny, and pointed out that he is a Jew. As this point, Mr Livingstone went on to compare Mr Finegold to a concentration camp guard. He also described the Standard as "a load of scumbags and reactionary bigots".

It is thought that he was not stone cold sober at the time. That night, the reporter went back to the office, still "shocked and offended" (in his own words) by Mr Livingstone's insult, and told the newsdesk what had happened. He wrote an account that included a verbatim record of the exchange.

The Standard has had a difficult relationship with London's Mayor, particularly since Veronica Wadley took over as editor three years ago. She ignored an invitation to meet Mr Livingstone at the beginning of her reign, and begana campaign against his flagship policy, the congestion charge. Mr Livingstone became convinced that the Standard was no more than a provincial offshoot of the Daily Mail. Both titles are owned by Associated Newspapers.

Later, Ms Wadley decided that too close a resemblance to the Mail was not a good way to appeal to a London readership, which is largely anti-Tory. She softened the newspaper's opposition to the congestion charge, and backed Mr Livingstone in last year's mayoral election. Thinking that they did not need another public falling out with the Mayor the Standard decided to "spike" Mr Finegold's story.

That could have been the last anyone heard about it, except that someone on the Standard's staff leaked Mr Finegold's report to the MediaGuardian website, where it was posted nearly 48 hours after the event.

The first reaction from Mr Livingstone's office was to attack, by falsely alleging that Mr Finegold had sworn at the Mayor. They may not have known that he had the whole conversation on tape. After being picked up by several newspapers on Friday, the Standard added its own account. It was given fewer words than a long, approving report published the same day about the Mayor's plans for Oxford Street. "This paper is not biased against Mr Livingstone," an accompanying editorial bleated. Even at this stage, most people expected the ruckus to die down when Mr Livingstone appeared before the London Assembly on Monday.

He was being advised, to apologise and defuse a row that might cast a shadow over the International Olympic Committee visit. It has been suggested that Mr Livingstone and the Labour Party's national leadership are working together to recover the Muslim vote by upsetting the Jews, but this theory does not hold water. It is true that one of the few organisations to defend Mr Livingstone last week was the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, but the Labour leadership was embarrassed enough by its own gaffe, in designing a poster superimposing Michael Howard's and Oliver Letwin's heads on the bodies of flying pigs, which was attacked for being anti-Semitic, and was particularly keen for Mr Livingstone to back down.

But despite Mr Livingstone's appearance as a sociable type, he is actually a loner who does not readily listen to advice. During his 14 years in Parliament, he probably had fewer friends than any other MP, despite his great following outside. When attacked, his natural instinct is to dig in his heels - a quality he needed to get to where he is after expulsion from the Labour Party.

With everyone demanding he apologise, Mr Livingstone refused, and a spat between a politician and a journalist became a question of whether London's first citizen had insulted the Jewish community. The French press took up the story, hoping it might improve Paris's chance of hosting the 2012 Olympics. Tony Blair was dragged in. Asked on Channel Five whether the Mayor should apologise, he replied: "Yes. He should apologise and move on." He repeated the call later in an interview with The Jewish Chronicle. But in Mr Livingstone's mind, this is not a self-contained incident that started after a party. His statement to the London Assembly, made in the presence of three Holocaust survivors, was an emotional one.

Mr Livingstone said he saw this as another skirmish in a personal war that had lasted 24 years, and a political problem dating back much further - not so much with the Standard as with the Daily Mail.

The first report ever carried in the Daily Mail about the career of Mr Livingstone, on 9 May 1981, left no one in any doubt about what the newspaper thought of him. "A left-wing extremist was installed as leader of the Great London Council yesterday ... ," it began.

Three months later, the Mail asked three psychologists for an explanation of Mr Livingstone's radicalism. One was quoted as saying: "With both parents forced to hold down two jobs in order to survive, it is most likely he suffered from a lack of attention. Probably the only way he could get it was to be a naughty boy ... ." The psychologists said they had been misquoted, but the Press Council ruled in favour of the Mail.

Later, the Mail allegedly offered Mr Livingstone's ex-wife £50,000 for an interview, pursued his elderly mother, and questioned his neighbours after the break-up of his relationship. Yesterday's headline was "How my jibe is helping the Games bid, by Red Ken". This was because, when asked if the furore would damage London's chances of hosting the Olympics, Mr Livingstone had replied: "Not at all." The IOC would see "a Mayor who does not panic".

In Mr Livingstone's mind it is also relevant to record the relationship between the first Viscount Rothermere, co-founder of the Daily Mail and great-grandfather of its current proprietor, and Adolf Hitler. Rothermere wrote an article in the Mail in July 1933 attacking the "clamorous campaign of denunciation" being conducted against Germany's new ruler. He alleged that before the Nazi takeover "Israelites of international attachments were insinuating themselves into key positions in the German administrative machine".

After the Munich débâcle, on 1 October 1938, Rothermere sent a congratulatory telegram to Hitler. "Frederick the Great was a great popular figure in England," it said. "May not Adolf the Great become an equally popular figure? I salute Your Excellency's star, which rises higher and higher."

Mr Livingstone, who was born in 1945, refers frequently to the war. He does not think that an institution with the Mail's history has a right to tell him to apologise to the Jews. But he will have to apologise, in some form or other, with an investigation by the Standards Board looming.

On Tuesday, he will give his weekly press conference, in which he hopes to discuss transport. Journalists will have issues on their minds. It is then, according to his deputy Nick Gavron, that Mr Livingstone will express regret "in his own way, in his own time".

Additional reporting by Katy Guest

A SEVEN-DAY STAND-OFF

Sunday

"I don't believe he has a racist or an anti-Semitic bone in his body [but] it is good to apologise," Secretary of State for Culture Tessa Jowell tells GMTV.

Monday

"If I could relieve any pain anyone feels, I would not hesitate - but it would require me to be a liar," Ken Livingstone tells the London Assembly. "Why should I say words I do not believe?"

Tuesday

"None of this need have happened," says the reporter Oliver Finegold in his own version of the encounter, published by the Evening Standard.

Wednesday

"He should apologise and move on," the Prime Minister tells The Wright Stuff on Channel Five.

Thursday

"In the fullness of time he will say he regrets causing offence," says Nicky Gavron, Deputy Mayor of London. "When that is I don't know."

Friday

"It is rather far-fetched to outright condemn and ban an iconic figure in the anti-racism movement," says Wakkas Khan of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies.

Saturday

"They [the International Olympic Committee] will see a Mayor who does not panic and change course but who will remained focused and deliver an exceptional Games," says Ken Livingstone.

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