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17 January 2008

My questions for Ken

London's mayor must be open to legitimate scrutiny writes NS political editor Martin Bright who has

By Martin Bright

I have now been working for six months on an investigation for Channel 4 into the office of the Mayor of London and the only man who has held the post so far, Ken Livingstone. The Dispatches programme is scheduled to air on 21 January (8pm). Since May 2000, Livingstone has been a charismatic holder of the job who has pushed through bold schemes such as the congestion charge with a great passion. He has been re-elected once and is still the favourite to win when mayoral elections are held on 1 May.

But in the course of my research I came across a blizzard of stories that do not show the mayor in an entirely good light. These include some already in the public domain, such as the cost of foreign trips and the “embassies” set up by the mayor abroad, details of the oil deal with Venezuela’s leader, Hugo Chávez, and questions over spending by the London Development Agency. Other stories, including one concerning a campaign against Trevor Phillips, now chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, organised from within City Hall, raise concerns. There are also the curious actions of Livingstone’s inner circle of advisers and their idiosyncratic politics. And, inevitably, we looked at the congestion charge.

Perhaps most importantly we examined the office of mayor itself: whether it is institutionally robust and whether any incumbent in the post would be held fully accountable.

Livingstone likes to think of himself as the eternal underdog but he is, in fact, the man in power in London. After nearly eight years in office, he is the only mayor London has had. A one-hour documentary about his record is the very least he can expect. I would have liked to put some of the concerns contained in the film to the mayor in person at his weekly press conference, but it was cancelled, amid speculation in the London media that he did not wish to answer the claims made in Dispatches.

The mayor has now sent a letter to the chief executive of Channel 4, Andy Duncan, claiming that the programme is, in effect, a party political broadcast on behalf of Boris Johnson. I reject that vehemently. Holding powerful politicians to account is a crucial part of the job of the media. In September, the New Statesman ran a highly critical cover article about Johnson with the cover line “The Joke”. I have no personal animus against Livingstone – and I could think of nothing worse than to support Johnson. I just believe Livingstone is worthy of journalistic investigation, like any other senior politician.

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I was delighted when Livingstone became Mayor of London in 2000 against the full might of the Labour spin machine. I believe he has been a courageous politician whose once-derided “loony left” ideas about the promotion of the rights of minorities are now so mainstream that they are even official Conservative policy. Livingstone has been right about many things, but I believe his behaviour is symptomatic of a man who has grown too comfortable with power.

Strange responses

I was surprised by the reaction of the mayor’s office and the Labour Party to early leaks that appeared in the Sunday papers, leaks that did not come from Channel 4. Livingstone has a reputation as a cool media operator, so the nature of the rebuttals struck me as peculiar.

When the Sunday Times put to the mayor’s office claims about Livingstone’s alcohol consumption at “Mayor’s Questions” allegedly contained in the programme, the statement was as follows: “This smear comes from the London Assembly Tories . . . if Ken is intoxicated at Mayor’s Questions, how come he wipes the floor with the Tory members of the as sembly at every session? It is in equal parts a dirty attack and laughable to smear Ken Livingstone.”

This rather obvious attempt to avoid the question uses the oldest trick in the book: denying a claim the programme does not make. It is not as if the mayor was running blind here. He was sent the details of the claims nearly two weeks in advance of transmission. We simply examine allegations that he has been seen drinking whisky on three occasions at public meetings, including his monthly Mayor’s Questions, where he faces scrutiny from assembly members. This takes place at ten o’clock in the morning, and it would be a disci plinary matter for his staff (unless authorised by the mayor himself or other senior City Hall staff).

He should know that these claims did not come from the Tories. In fact, they were confirmed by several members of the assembly. Indeed, the mayor himself said openly in a lift in City Hall, within the hearing of one of our researchers, that he needed a whisky to get him through Mayor’s Questions. He added that this was because of a cough.

I also witnessed him with my own eyes drinking from a tumbler of whisky at People’s Questions at Ilford Town Hall, a public platform where he faced questions from London voters. Although it was an evening event, I felt this showed a degree of disrespect for the audience. No member of the assembly on the platform was drinking anything other than water. There is no question that the substance in the glass was alcohol. We have conclusive scientific evidence on that.

The mayor may well have had a cold and there is no reason to believe this was a habit of his. But ten o’clock in the morning is unusual and I would question whether it sends out the right messages. The Mayor of London has just won the support of several prominent Muslim organisations for the forthcoming mayoral election. The general view is that alcohol is haram (forbidden) in Islam, so I can only imagine they will take a dim view of whisky-drinking on the job.

The Labour Party’s response to the drinking was curious: it issued a statement condemning the alcohol claims before seeing the Dispatches programme. “The smear that the may-or is an alcoholic or even habitually drinks too much is preposterous and totally untrue.” The programme makes no such claims.

In the event, the drinking takes up only a few minutes of the film, but I believe Livingstone’s behaviour is indicative of a politician who has become arrogant.

Full scrutiny

I was also surprised at the general response given by the mayor’s office to the Observer, suggesting that Channel 4 was guilty of “unlawful interference” in the electoral process. Can the mayor’s office seriously believe that Livingstone is immune to investigation in the four months leading up to the election? Surely this is the time journalists should be looking hardest at the mayor’s record in office. I have no doubt that the media will subject Johnson, and the Liberal Democrat candidate, Brian Paddick, to full scrutiny in the run-up to the mayoral elections. But the idea that Channel 4 should not have made a documentary about the incumbent of the past eight years is ridiculous.

Livingstone was widely criticised when he invited the Egyptian radical scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi to London in 2004. Peter Tatchell, the veteran human rights activist, was one of those who objected to the visit. His words should be food for thought for everyone considering voting for Livingstone this year: “I’ve been a very strong supporter of Ken Livingstone for nearly 30 years . . . I think overall he has been a good mayor for London but I do think there are a number of issues where he’s made some monumental misjudgements.

“When I questioned the rationale and the ethics of invit- ing Yusuf al-Qaradawi to London, the relationship with Ken Livingstone suddenly changed . . . Ken took the view that because I didn’t agree with him inviting to London someone who is anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynistic and who justifies terrorist suicide bombings, because I opposed that, I was an Islamophobe.”

In the programme, we raise serious questions about the machinery that holds the Mayor of London to account. According to one expert, Livingstone treats London Assembly members as “dunderheads” . Even though their role is one of oversight and scrutiny, they have no real sanctions with which to control the mayor.

Like me, many of the people we spoke to had previously been supporters of the mayor, but are now unhappy with the way things have turned out. Perhaps it is the institution of mayor itself which is at fault, in which all executive power devolved from national government resides in the person who holds the post of mayor.

Anyone elected in May would face the same issues of accountability. They would also face legitimate scrutiny from the media.