Rowan Laxton – Undiplomatic

18 10 2009

Category: Law, Media, Middle East, Politics, Anti-Semitism, Rowan Laxton

(Update – In March 2010 Rowan Laxton was acquitted of racially aggravated public disorder after a retrial – see here for more)

In September 2009 I was idly looking at the BBC website and came across the case of Rowan Laxton. I wouldn’t normally have seen it; it was placed in the London section in the bottom right hand corner, the most obscure position it could possibly have been placed in with a headline “Race abuse diplomat convicted.” When I read the report I was surprised that I had not heard of the case before and that it had been hidden in the remotest corner of the BBC site. I think the case has lots of interesting aspects.

Who is Rowan Laxton

Rowan Laxton is a British Diplomat. He was head of the South Asia Group at the UK Foreign Office until he was arrested following an incident at a gym in London in late January 2009. Following the incident he was suspended by the Foreign Office [Hansard]. He was charged in May. [BBC]On 24th September 2009 he was convicted after a court hearing. Following conviction the Foreign Office said he would be subject to disciplinary proceedings. At time of writing the result of these proceedings has not been published…

According to the Foreign Office website the Head of the South Asia Group is responsible for:

  • Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives
  • India, Nepal and Bhutan
  • Indo-Pakistan relations
  • Shanghai Expo 2010

What has he done

Rowan Laxton was on an exercise bike when a report about the Israeli operation Gaza was shown on Sky News.

The following is taken from the fullest report I have found of the trial, in The Times, it describes what another gym user heard:

“I started to work out,” he said. “I heard someone shout, ‘F***ing Israelis, f***ing Jews’.

“I could hear that it came from above me. I wanted to see who shouted. I couldn’t see anyone who was particularly aggravated. Mr Laxton came downstairs to the lower part of the mezzanine and I spoke to him.”

Mr Falter claimed that Mr Laxton, head of the South Asia desk in the Foreign Office, admitted that it was him who had launched the tirade before allegedly adding:

“It’s not racist. If I had my way, the international community would be sent in and if the Israelis got in the way, they would be blown off the face of the f***ing Earth.”

What was Rowan Laxton Convicted of?

He was convicted of was contravening section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 and Section 32 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. BBC Report

What does that mean?

Under Section 5 of the Public Order Act he is guilty of;

“using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour…within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.”

To put it in context, this is at the very bottom end of the charging spectrum. It’s commonly used for people making a nuisance of themselves; yobs causing trouble on a Saturday night or a tramp shouting abuse at people in the street. If I were reviewing this paperwork as the charging lawyer it is exactly the charge I would have preferred and covers the situation perfectly.

The charge does not say he caused harassment; it’s that he behaved in a way likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress, whether it does or not. In essence it’s saying “your behaviour is socially unacceptable.”

The defence to the charge is that the behaviour was ‘reasonable’. As the judge put it:

“It is hard to imagine the circumstances when saying ‘f*****g Jews’ in a gym used by other people, and overheard by two strangers 20 ft away, could be considered reasonable.”

What about the racially aggravated bit?

Following the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 a new set of offences was created; racially and (later) religiously aggravated offences. S.5 of the Public Order Act was one of the affected criminal charges. This is what Rowan Laxton was charged with and comes into play where:

the offence is motivated (wholly or partly) by hostility towards members of aracial or religious group based on their membership of that group.”

The racial element aggravates the basic S.5 offence; it’s also essential to the racially/religiously aggravated charge. The court had to decide whether or not Laxton was making a nuisance of himself and also whether that nuisance was racially or religiously motivated.

Why is the distinction important?

Rowan Laxton was not convicted “for his views” [Rod Liddle in the Spectator] or “for being rude to Israel” [Press TV]. He was convicted of behaving anti-socially in public. Had the legislation creating racially and religiously aggravated offences never been enacted (and I personally think those statutes should be scrapped) he would still be guilty of the offence of disorder (s.5 Public Order Act).

How has it been reported

It’s worth looking at some of the headlines because that’s the bit that captures the reader and illustrates what the organisation considers the important element of the case to be.

Press Association:

The Press Association is a benchmark for straight reporting. It is where many news organisations get their copy from.

Their headline is:

F.O man fined for racist outburst

Which is straight and factual including all the relevant elements. They identify what it is about Laxton that’s interesting and what it is about the offence that’s interesting; that it’s a) and outburst and b) a racist one.

The Telegraph:

They follow the PA lead but the sub-head has more information which again seems to summarise the important elements including the anti-semitism; an important part of the story:

Civil servant fined for racist outburst against Jews

Rowan Laxton, a Foreign Office civil servant, has been found guilty of shouting ‘* Jews” while he exercised in a gym.

The Guardian

The Guardian takes an interesting approach. They go with the harassment tag and focus on the anti-Israeli element rather than the anti-semitism. Do they go with the anti-Israel angle because they think their readers would find that less unacceptable and therefore have more sympathy for Laxton?

Foreign Office diplomat found guilty of racial harassment

Senior civil servant, 48, ordered to pay £350 after shouting anti-Israeli obscenities during London gym workout

Press TV

Press TV is funded by the Iranian government. It’s a useful illustration how a story can be spun. They know that having this headline will promote a quite different type of outrage; against the British judiciary for convicting someone for what the followers of Press TV might consider to be quite reasonable – being rude to Israel.

UK diplomat convicted for being rude to Israel

Daily Mail

It’s clear where the Daily Mail is coming from; “anti-semitic gym rant”. Stronger than the PA headline which used the milder word “outburst”, and anti-semitic rather than racist. It’s something that would be debated in the newsroom. To use racist or anti-semitic? Which they choose would depend on how they want to play the story and what they think their readership wants to see.

Foreign Office official faces the sack for anti-Semitic gym rant

The Times

The Times highlights all the important elements. Notice how they’re most similar to the Mail, which if you had never heard of any of these newspapers would suggest they are the closest in outlook. Which they are.

Foreign Office chief faces sack after ‘anti-Semitic’ rant verdict


There are a few things about the BBC story that are interesting. They’ve gone with ‘race’ rather then anti-semitism; they’ve gone with ‘abuse’ rather than outburst or rant and they’ve gone with ‘diplomat’. Calling someone a diplomat is very generic. When I saw the story I had no idea what kind of diplomat he was and assumed he was a foreign diplomat based in London. I was given a number of clues that downplayed the story and inferred to me as a reader it was one to pass over. There’s nothing to identify that this is a senior British civil servant. There ought to be – it’s a crucial part of the story. It was located in the most remote part of the website. What on earth is a story of this importance doing in the most obscure part of the London section of the website. The least important part of the story is that it happened in London. The placing, or rather hiding, of the story in this way is a clear application of news values.

Race abuse diplomat convicted



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