Monday 5 March 2012

Coleman Hearing: part two

Coleman and solicitor Stephen Hocking watched by Mrs Coleman - and half of the Barnet Bugle

After the recess, the hearing continued, although Coleman's solicitor felt moved to express they were doing so 'under protest'.

At the beginning of the hearing, the Barnet Bugle, who usually films meetings, and has had to fight to be allowed to do so, and does so usually much to the annoyance of Tory councillors such as Coleman, told Mrs Angry, with some surprise, that Coleman had asked him to film. This instantly set alarm bells ringing in Mrs Angry's blogging head. Were the protestors going to act up? No, as it turned out they kept quiet. But then there were probably other reasons for Brian wanting his performance captured for posterity.

Because it was his turn to speak now.

He chose to use the opportunity to emphasis, in robust terms, and in a well rehearsed address, his support for the State of Israel, his support for the Jewish community, the danger of an increasing, rising tide of anti-semitism. He mentioned Baroness Tonge, and then the views of the complainants, as of they were of the same nature. He referred constantly to pro Palestinian organisations and in terms which suggested that the complainants were extremists, and active members of such organisations. He quoted Abba Eban and the Chief Rabbi in defence of his assertion that anti Zionism was the same as anti semitism. He claimed that anti Zionism was the middle class dinner party version of anti semitism amongst Guardian readers. He said, piously, that if anything in his career was worth doing, it was to fight anti semitism. He presented himself, in short as a hero, a man to be admired and thanked for his selfless dedication to the grateful Jewish community. Mrs Angry noted with interest that he constantly mispronounced the word anti semitic as 'anti semetic': a small detail, for sure, but telling, all the same.

He made no apology for his insulting remarks, for stating that one complainant would have been a black shirt seventy years ago, and that the other was a 'disloyal' Israeli.

He did not trouble himself with the finer points of what the complainants had actually said, or the observations in their statements, of course, and so I am going to repeat these here, as no one else did today, and whereas Coleman and his solicitor were able to present their case without challenge, please note that the complainants themselves had no voice, no legal representation, and the baseless slurs on their character were repeated with no real examination of the facts:

Dr Jago:

'... to be actually accused of being a fascist was just ... to be honest it's one of the most horrible things anyone has ever said to me. In fact, probably the most horrible.'

'I was shocked. I was really really offended. To call someone a fascist is just absolutely beyond the pale.'

'It has got such emotional hatred behind it ... something that emotionally loaded, something that is such a terrible accusation, I think it is absolutely abuse.'

... you can't really let it go because you think, 'Well, I'm not anti Israel ... I'm not anti Israel. I oppose some of Israel's policies, but then, to be honest, I oppose some of the UK's policies - that doesn't make me anti-British. I know many Jewish people oppose some actions of the Israeli government too ...'

'I think it was the disconnect as well. 'Where have you got that I'm an anti- Zionist? As I understand it, Zionism is wanting a Jewish homeland, which I agree with. I have studied enough medieval history to know that it was a terrible situation for the Jews: they got kicked out of absolutely everywhere, persecuted, murdered. Of course they want a homeland, as I would hope for and want one if I were in their place. In fact, that's the point, I have a homeland: it's Britain. I bleieve that Jews deserve one just as I have one. I totally agree with the Zionist principle. I just think that some of Israel's policies need tweaking. So to be called an anti-Zionist is just so far off the mark, it is absurd, without even going into the 'black shirt' aspect ...'

And Ron Cohen:

'As an Israeli who has spent a lifetime campaigning for a just peace and human rights for Israelis and Palestinians alike, accusing me of disloyalty is as insulting as it can possibly be.

Councillor Coleman has every right to disagree with my views, but as an elected official, he must do so on a respectful manner, especially when he is acting in his capacity as a member of the council.'

'I approach it from a pro peace position, in order to secure the ongoing acceptance of the State of Israel ... I am an Israeli who believes in peace and the continued existence of Israel. This is not anti Israel, it is for Israel and Councillor Coleman's insinuation otherwise is very insulting.'

Nothing could be clearer, from this comments that neither Dr Jago nor Ron Cohen are either anti Zionist, let alone anti semitic, yet Coleman and continued to refer to them as if they were part of the 'rising tide' of anti semitism which he so deplores, as indeed does anyone with any decency.

Coleman is not interested in the truth in this regard, of course, or the subtleties of political opinion. Perhaps he is intellectually incapable of understanding the complexities of these issues, or perhaps he simply does not care.

As Coleman was delivering his self congratulatory address on the subject of his singlehanded crusade against anti semitisim, and neatly diverting the focus of the hearing away from the real issue, that is to say what the independent investigator described as his 'personally offensive, abusive and demeaning' remarks, one of the complainants, Ron Cohen, asked if he could inform the meeting that in fact he was present. He was not allowed to speak, was instantly silenced. In response to this revelation, Coleman's solicitor made a rather chilling comment, saying wrily that Mr Cohen 'may well wish to speak when he hears what I have to say' ...

Interestingly, Mrs Angry cannot recall Hocking or Coleman referring in any way to the appalling remark in regard to Dr Jago and the blackshirts. It seems even Mr Hocking cannot find an adequate defence for calling someone a latterday Nazi sympathiser.

Hocking, who is a former Tory councillor in Camden, and works for the Beachcroft law firm, referred to Dr Jago and Ron Cohen as 'committed and (my emphasis) - hardened campaigners ... he picked out what appeared to be radical statements made at different times by the organisation whose pro forma letter they had used as a template for their emails to Coleman, in an attempt to make them seem extreme and unreasonable in their opinions, which clearly they are not.

He said of them with barely concealed contempt: 'we are not talking about the girl guides', a phrase he found so pleasing he repeated it later. As evidence of Ron and Dr Jago being steeped in infamy, he referred with theatrical horror to the mention in one document to 'war crimes', saying Veolia was being accused of involvement in the most serious crimes known to man.

This was the distortion of one reference in a document to objections to the occupation of Palestinian territories, which is in breach of international law, and is a result of the 1967 war, therefore the continued occupation and its consequences are, in some people's view, a war crime: to believe this, however, does not make you an anti Zionist and it most certainly does not make you an anti semite.

Why does feeling compassion for people living in an occupied territory make you automatically labelled as some one who does not also feel sympathy and compassion for those subject to the repulsive persecution and hatred of anti semitism? This is something I will never, ever understand.

But in this context it is anyway an irrelevance, a diversion. It was not the reason either complainant had contacted Coleman: they wished merely to suggest that the ethical status of Veolia, with its history of association with occupied territories, was such that raised signifcant doubt as to the suitability to be involved in a bid for business here in London.

Hocking then tried to persuade the committee that in his exchange with Coleman, Ron Cohen had somehow forced him to express himself in the way he did - (ie, as the investigator put it, 'deliberately personal, offensive and insulting abuse') by 'escalating the language'.

He moved on now to that favourite piece of legislation, such a boon to the Tory politician when in trouble, yet so despised when used by anyone else, the European Convention on Human Rights.

He wanted the committee to be mindful of Article 10 - the right to freedom of expression. You know, that thing that is reserved, honoured and cherished for the exclusive use of Tory councillors, but denied to any other resident of Broken Barnet. Mrs Angry did not quite understand his point, but the gist of it it seemed to be that Brian is allowed to say what he wants, and we must all sit and listen, and not answer back.

As we sat thinking about this bizarre interpretation, we found ourselves hearing Mr Hocking telling us that it was not our Brian who was in trouble today: no, no - it was in fact the case that 'the council is on trial' ... are they, he demanded, 'going to challenge anti semitism?'

Before anyone could draw breath, he was then quoting Milton, and to lay outrageous insult on top of outrageous insult, invoking the writing of George Orwell, and the concept of ha - thought crime. That Mrs Angry did not explode in indignation, at this point, is a fecking miracle, I can tell you.

It was time for the committee to withdraw to make their decision. As we waited, the investigator sat at the back of the room reading - uh oh - the Guardian. No wonder, eh Brian? Mind you, it was the sports section.

The committee returned. They found Coleman guilty on two counts of breaches of the code of conduct for failing to show respect. Coleman retained his usual sulky, grim faced expression. Hocking showed no reaction of surprise, and moved quickly on to reasons for mitigation for his client. While he was doing this, incredibly, Coleman sat at the table, in front of the Chair and other members, openly reading messages on his phone.

As he had at the Tambourides hearing, Hocking tried to persuade the committee that the looming introduction of the new localism arrangements for standards meant that the old system of sanctions ought really not to apply. In view of the subject matter, he said, and passions on both sides being what they were ... hello, thought Mrs Angry, nice of you now to see that there are two sides to this issue. He thought that it would be appropriate to impose a sanction at the lesser end, especially get this - at this particular time in the election cycle.

In other words, if a councillor behaves badly, does not co operate with the investigation until the latest possible moment, shows no remorse, and is duly found guilty of breaching the code of conduct, we must, if he is standing for re election, help him to be re elected by not over doing his punishment, and attracting any bad publicity at such a sensitive time. Really?

The investigator was asked by the Chair for his comments. He questioned why it had taken so long to get to this point ... see above, the long delays caused by a lack of response from the respondant ... and reminded the committee that the old regime was still in place in regard to this complaint, that suspension was still available as an option. He gave an example of a similar case where this sanction was used.

Another recess to consider the sanctions to be imposed on the naughty councillor. Rather than looking at the mitigating factors, it seemed, the committee was inclined to remember that Coleman has previous - see Tichborne v Coleman, a couple of years back - he was therefore formally censured by the committee, and ordered to write apologies to Mr Cohen and Dr Jago.

His solicitor tried to get his sanction suspended pending an appeal: the committee refused to allow this.

And that was that.

What do Ron Cohen and Dr Jago get, for the abusive comments they received, being vilified as anti semites, blackshirts, subjected to a year long investigation and then a hearing in which they have no right to take part, even though their reputations were subjected to further potential damage, while the respondant ignores the proceedings for months, and then has the benefit of expensive legal support?

They see Coleman receive a slapped wrist, and maybe in return they will receive a forced letter of apology.

And if you think that was mild, just wait until the new localism act makes the new standards system even more impotent. This in fact shows the contradiction of the localism agenda: claiming to empower a local community to take control of the democratic process, whilst seeking to give more power to elected representatives to do whatever the hell they want, and in between elections, there is not a damned thing you will be able to do about it.

By a fortunate piece of timing, of course, it happens that we are just approaching an election. On May 3rd Brian Coleman expects you to reward him for his marvellous efforts on our behalf these last four years, by returning him to his comfy post at the London Assembly. If you object to this idea, and want to give him perhaps less of a slapped wrist, and more of a kick up his arse, Mrs Angry suggests you do the right thing, and get him where it really hurts - in the ballot box.

Barnet's Standard's Committee conducts hearing into allegations Brian Coleman broke code of conduct from The Barnet Bugle Ltd on Vimeo.

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