Last week the London Evening Standard devoted many column inches to attacking Lutfur Rahman, the mayor of Tower Hamlets. Wednesday's issue had a report headlined "Mayor of poverty-hit council hires adviser in £1,000-a-day deal" – co-authored by Tom Harper, who has form on such issues, having previously witch-hunted Azad Ali for the Mail. It began:
One of the poorest boroughs in London today came under fire for spending £1,000 a day on a personal aide for its mayor.
Tony Winterbottom is an "executive adviser" on regeneration and development to Lutfur Rahman, the mayor of Tower Hamlets who was ousted from the Labour Party over alleged links to Islamic extremists.
Local government secretary Eric Pickles accused Mr Rahman of wasting taxpayer money. He said: "It is astonishing that one of the poorest boroughs in the country sees fit to squander such colossal amounts of public cash in this way.
"Tower Hamlets seems to be living the ultimate champagne socialist lifestyle, leaving taxpayers to pick up the tab. I fail to see the business case for shelling out this money, which should be diverted towards protecting frontline services."
As is usual with witch-hunting articles in the right-wing press, you have to read to the end of the report to find information that completely contradicts the shock-horror headline and introduction. Tony Winterbottom is quoted as saying:
"I tendered a bid for £1,000 a day. In reality, I get paid £125 an hour but I have not yet put in an invoice. I wanted them to respect me as an individual so I asked them to pay me a proper price but I'm not going to charge them.
"I'm absolutely squeaky clean. This is not a money-making operation. This is about fighting for Lutfur Rahman who's trying to do good work."
So it turns out that, far from costing the citizens of Tower Hamlets £1,000 a day, Tony Winterbottom hasn't charged a penny for his services. The real story here is that a former senior official at the London Development Agency whose expertise commands fees well in excess of that figure has provided his knowledge of regeneration and development to Lutfur Rahman for free, because of his admiration for the work the mayor is doing in the borough.
What seems to have happened is that Peter Golds, leader of the tiny Tory group on Tower Hamlets Council, uncovered the (so far non-existent) payments to Winterbottom through an FOI request and then fed this story to the press. Taking their inspiration from Golds, the Evening Standard set out to expose the squandering of public money by Lutfur Rahman, but found that the story failed to check out. Showing complete contempt for the actual facts of the case, they went ahead and ran the story anyway.
The ultimate target of the Standard's attack on Lutfur Rahman was made clear the next day, with the publication of a rambling piece by former Telegraph comments editor and Bill Deedes biographer Stephen Robinson, entitled "Ken's friends in the East". Again taking his cue from Peter Golds, Robinson accused Rahman of securing election through an "exceptionally dirty" campaign involving "concerted electoral malpractice and mass intimidation at polling stations", of having "links to those around the hardline Islamic Forum of Europe" and of tolerating homophobia and antisemitism. But the main thrust of the piece was to smear Ken Livingstone. Robinson wrote:
The Jewish Chronicle believes "Ken has calculated that backing Mr Rahman's brand of Islamism-lite will win him enough support to justify sacrificing the votes of Jewish, gay or more moderate Muslim Londoners".
In his memoir You Can't Say That, published last year, Livingstone suggests that his "campaigns against racism and homophobia and for women's rights" made him a hate figure in the Eighties. Many on the Left wonder why he is now allying himself in Tower Hamlets with forces that wish to see women veiled and are hostile to Israel and Jews in general.
Robinson went on to accuse Rahman and Livingstone of making concessions to anti-gay prejudice:
The White Swan, a gay pub in Limehouse, is being targeted by the Rahman administration. Hundreds of regulars have signed a petition to stop the council closing down the regular Wednesday night drag queen strip event, which they say is a harmless camp show that could be blamelessly attended in any city centre in Britain.
Sections of the gay press worry that the targeting of the White Swan is part of a wider concession to the homophobic impulses of core supporters of Rahman and Livingstone.
Taking up this theme, on Friday the Standard returned to the attack on Rahman and Livingstone with a report headlined "Fury at Ken Livingstone ally's drag queen ban". Again, the report was Tory-inspired, as is clear from an article by former Conservative MP Matthew Parris, headlined "Time to tear a strip off the misery guts mayor" and published earlier that day in the Times. Parris wrote:
Now Ken Livingstone's ally Lutfur Rahman, the "elected" (he got 13 per cent of the vote [in reality 51.76 per cent]) mayor of Tower Hamlets, and his Sharia-tinged administration propose closing down this jolly, historic East End boozer by designating it a sex establishment. The consultation exercise was launched from the East London Mosque. The entire Conservative group on the council (I'm proud to say) has supported a petition against closure.
The Standard's own report began:
The mayor of Tower Hamlets has been accused of homophobia for trying to stop a gay pub running its popular "drag queen" strip nights.
Staff at the White Swan claim Lutfur Rahman, an ally of Ken Livingstone, is "making a mockery" of diversity.
Tower Hamlets council is threatening to classify the pub as a sex establishment and use laws regulating lap-dancing clubs to ban the Wednesday night comic contests, which have run for 26 years.
The Standard report was accompanied by a comment piece from Tory businessman Ivan Massow, who demanded: "Show where you really stand on gay rights, Ken." Opening with an attack on Peter Tatchell, who had issued a press release making what most people would regard as the uncontroversial point that "Ken Livingstone is not homophobic", Massow went on to repeat the claim that
in Ken Livingstone's heartland of Tower Hamlets his friend Rahman is seeking to close down the historic gay pub, the White Swan, by designating it a "sexual establishment". The "consultation exercise" that will decide its fate is being held in the local mosque.
Once again you have to read to the end of the Standard report to find that there has in fact been no "drag queen ban" imposed in Tower Hamlets, and that Livingstone would oppose one if there was:
A council spokesman said: "No decision has been made in relation to which premises would be deemed to be sex establishments. Mayor Rahman is opposed to any type of discrimination." A spokesman for Ken Livingstone said: "This is a long-standing and popular club and I hope it will be granted an exemption to remain open."
As Tom Copley asked in an article for Pink News, "East London gay pub isn't at risk, so why smear Ken Livingstone?" He wrote:
It is simply inaccurate to say that anyone is proposing to close the White Swan. Its closure has never been proposed. What is happening is that Tower Hamlets is bringing forward a plan to deal with lap-dancing clubs. That means putting a framework in place.
The White Swan will be able to apply for an exemption that allows it to continue with its entertainment, but within a framework that means local people will have to put up with less of the sleazy, seedy, anti-social lap-dancing clubs that residents all over the capital are complaining about.
We need boroughs to take a stand on the proliferation of lap-dancing clubs. In this, Tower Hamlets is merely following a number of other London boroughs, including Labour-run Camden and Hackney councils, in clamping down on the growth of lap-dancing.
This has absolutely nothing to do with closing gay bars and everything to do with the safety of women and the protection of local communities from the unpleasant side-effects of the sex industry.
The background to these baseless Tory-inspired smears against Rahman and Livingstone is of course that the election for mayor of London takes place in May, and Livingstone and Tory incumbent Boris Johnson have been running neck-and-neck in recent opinion polls. As Tom Copley points out, the tactics the Tories intend to pursue in their mayoral campaign are now plain to see:
Boris Johnson clearly has no intention of fighting this election on the issues that matter to Londoners – cutting fares, halting police cuts and dealing with rip-off rents and agency fees for Londoners in the private-rented sector – but instead wants to shift the debate to a sideshow of smears against Ken. This is hardly surprising given Ken's popular pledges to cut fares and increase police numbers. But their much darker agenda is an attempt to use divide and rule to drive a wedge between the gay community and the Muslim community. The implication is that you have to choose one. Ken is a friend of both.
We want a united London, not one in which the Tories divide-to-rule.
As for the Evening Standard, you would have thought its current editor might have learned some lessons from the 2008 London mayoral election, when the paper disgraced itself by abandoning any pretence of political objectivity and turning itself into a propaganda arm of the Tory campaign, earning the nickname of the "Evening Boris". Unless they're intending to run another series of advertisements apologising to Londoners for their paper's behaviour, the Lebedevs need to get a grip on the Standard's editorial policy.
Postscript: On the question of gay venues getting swept up in a general crackdown on lap-dancing clubs and similar sex establishments, the Islington Tribune reports there's been a controversy in that borough over the licensing of a gay venue named Central Station. Clearly this issue has nothing to do with "Muslim homophobia".