The Media Column: Why Ken Livingstone will survive the party hangover

By David Aaronovitch
Monday 30 December 2013 04:12
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I don't go to parties much. Not the sort at which people stand outside the front door at one in the morning with cans and bottles in their hands. It's too late, there's too much noise and there's always someone falling off the 10ft porch and needing hospital treatment.

Ken Livingstone must now wish that he was as boring as me. The Mayor of London allegedly arrived at a birthday bash in Tufnell Park, north London, as much-loved maverick but departed as a drunken brawler. The occasion of the party was his pregnant girlfriend's sister's 40th birthday. At some point, an old friend of Livingstone's squeeze fell off the porch and hurt himself badly enough to need four weeks off work.

Some days later, a story emerged in the London Evening Standard (for which the man, Mr Hedges, worked) to the effect that it was Ken himself who – after an argument with his girlfriend that had become physical – had propelled Mr Hedges from the porch. The story further went that Ken then fled the scene, before the emergency services arrived.

Ken's indignant and public denials have been countered by the Standard's equally vehement defence of its story. He claims that he is the victim of a vendetta by the new editor, Veronica Wadley. Wadley doesn't claim anything, since, in the best tradition of journalism, she refuses to be interviewed. Instead, she lets her reporters and columnists do the talking.

For the observer, the whole shrill business resolves itself into two questions. What actually happened? And does it matter? On point one, there is a choice. Ken may be the hapless target of a vast conspiracy involving Ms Wadley, Mr Hedges and various guileless-seeming Antipodeans who were at the party (and gave their evidence subsequently to BBC London). Or, he got a bit pissed, had a row with his companion about her smoking, became over-emphatic, fell out with her friends and, in an attempt to brush off Mr Hedges, inadvertently sent him the 10 feet to A&E and fame.

I would go for explanation two, because I just can't imagine why some of these people would lie. Last week, in The Guardian's Letters page, two friends of Mr Hedges made much the same point, adding unnecessarily that they would believe their man rather than slippery Ken. The next day, someone replied, with unusual obtuseness, that they would rather believe Ken than the Evening Standard. Which, of course, soon became the point. Back to that later.

But does it matter? Can you be Mayor and have minor rows at parties? And here I depart from my colleagues in the profession. The description of events given by eye-witnesses hardly suggests GBH, or even loutish behaviour. But when something such as this happens, the language of the newsroom metamorphoses mildly pissed into "drunken"; firm arm-holding into "frogmarching"; and a push into a "brawl". It is hardly surprising, then, that simultaneously the facts can be correct but the story nevertheless denied. In other words, this could have happened to anybody, except – possibly – me. It has nothing to do with Ken's "fitness" for office.

Ken's response of alleging a vendetta, however, is an ancient tactic of his. I remember once writing an article about some of his far-left allies in the Labour Party – every word of which was accurate or easily defensible. Ken immediately responded with an ad hominem piece about how these honest Trots were being "smeared" by the likes of me. Ken knows from experience that people do not love or trust the press.

In fact, Ken has been incredibly lucky. For the most part, the pack has left him alone, choosing (like me) to enjoy the spectacle rather than to take part in the chase. Consider what the hacks' reaction would have been, had the party story happened to, for instance, Stephen Byers some time before his resignation. The whole lot would have descended upon him, with every e-mail he'd ever sent, every pair of Calvin Kleins he'd ever worn, every Bacardi he'd ever drunk all subpoenaed before the kangaroo court of journalism.

But it wasn't Byers; it was Ken, and my guess is that he will survive. Which is probably fine.

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