In the United States, a large portion of right-wing media coverage has been dedicated to Tommy Robinson and his recent conviction and imprisonment. Describing himself as a journalist, Robinson pleaded with President Trump to be granted political asylum. In response to Robinson’s emotional appeal and sentencing, several American commentators condemned his conviction as an “attack on free speech”.
However, the truth is far more complex. There are two important factors which Tommy Robinson and his far-right supporters are purposefully obfuscating in order garner misinformed supporters.
The first factor is the context provided by Tommy Robinson’s history. While Robinson is an unknown personality in the United States, beyond occasional appearances on Fox News and other conservative news outlets, he is an infamous character in the United Kingdom. Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon, rose to prominence as the founder and former leader of the far-right and virulently Islamophobic organization “EDL” (English Defence League). The group became synonymous with neo-Nazism, white supremacy, and violent attacks against British Muslims. Speaking at an EDL rally, Robinson blamed every British Muslim for the bombing attacks that rocked the city of London on July 7th 2007, threatening the entire Islamic communtiy with violence.
“We are here today to tell you, quite loud, quite clear, every single Muslim watching this video on YouTube. On 7/7 you got away with killing and maiming British citizens...We will not tolerate it, and the Islamic community will feel the full force of the English Defence League if we see any of our citizens killed, maimed, or hurt on British soil ever again.”
Tommy Robinson’s history is riddled with overtly Islamophobic rhetoric. Not only that, he has been convicted on multiple occasions of a wide variety of violent and non-violent crimes, including the assault of an off-duty police officer in 2005 and mortgage fraud in 2012. Perhaps most ironically, Robinson was also convicted in 2012 for entering the United States illegally using false documents. Robinson was already banned from entering the United States due to his criminal history and previous drug offenses.
The context provided by Tommy Robinson’s history shows that it’s important to take his emotional appeals with a grain of salt. While he appears distraught at the notion of imprisonment, he is no stranger to breaking the law and no stranger to prison. This is not to say that any recent or unrelated charges against Robinson are valid or deserved, but his history does provide a more complex foundation beneath his emotional appeals of victimhood.
The second factor disguised by Robinson and his supporters are the details of his most recent conviction, which occurred after he became a self-described “journalist”. He was first arrested in May of 2018 for “breaching the peace” by live-streaming outside Leeds Crown Court during a grooming and gang rape trial. Robinson filmed and accosted defendants as they entered the building, and spoke of “hundreds of young girls being gang-raped in our country, in every town and city” by “Muslim grooming gangs”.
Reporting restrictions were put in place to protect the integrity of the trials, as there were several ongoing cases being tried simultaneously. Robinson was on a suspended sentence for contempt of court committed in Canterbury in the previous year, and also admitted to his knowledge of the reporting restriction during his live-stream. He was released on bail after winning his challenge to his second contempt of court conviction, on the condition that a fresh hearing would be held. After this hearing, Robinson was sentenced to 9 months in jail.
Before continuing, it is crucial to acknowledge an important point. There are many who posit that courts should not have the authority to impose reporting restrictions and that such actions deny “freedom of speech” rights. While this is a perfectly reasonable opinion to hold, this does not excuse Robinson’s flagrant violation of the law. You are not permitted to ignore rules simply because you disagree with them.
Given the evidence available, it is clear that Tommy Robinson intentionally ignored reporting restrictions put in place to protect the integrity of the court. With this, the context provided by Robinson’s history becomes relevant.
Robinson has demonstrated consistently-Islamophobic behavior throughout his life as a public figure. While he and his supporters argue that he was “uncovering” the crimes committed by these gangs, we must at least question his motivation. Not only are his claims of compassion somewhat disingenuous given the damage he could have caused, it is also hard to understand how you can “uncover” crimes that are already passing through the justice system. We should also not fail to question why Robinson didn’t focus his journalistic talents on crimes that were going unpunished.
Many are still avidly defending Tommy Robinson as a victim, and often resort to three illogical strategies to deflect questions regarding Robinson’s character or motivations.
- The first is to present a false binary, where those who criticize Tommy Robinson are apologists for radical Islam or the crimes committed. It is clearly possible to criticize Robinson and the grooming gangs. Similarly, another false binary is applied when Robinson’s crimes are defended on the basis that they’re less egregious than other crimes. The fact that one crime can be worse than another does not mean that the lesser becomes non-criminal.
- The second is to argue that Tommy Robinson is fighting for a noble cause, and therefore any criticism of him is a hindrance to this fight. There are two problems with this assertion. The first is that it assumes Robinson’s actions are made in good faith, for which there is significant evidence to suggest the contrary. The second is that even if Robinson’s intentions were correct, that does not mean he is qualified for the role. If someone was willing to enter a burning building to save trapped children, but they were wearing a backpack filled with dynamite, presumably they wouldn’t be championed as the optimal solution.
- The third is to present an emotional argument, where his actions are defensible given the horrors committed by the criminals he targeted. This is one of the most effective strategies, as child abuse and gang rape are arguably the most disgustingly reprehensible crimes in existence. However, this is where dispassionate consistency is vital. Rights exist for all, even the most revolting amongst us, and one of those rights is the right to a fair trial. Additionally, the victims’ right to justice also supports the argument for reporting restrictions, and we cannot reject such rights in favor of emotional impulse.
In conclusion, it is certainly reasonable to debate whether or not reporting restrictions should be permitted. However, what is undeniable is that Tommy Robinson willingly ignored and breached these restrictions. In addition, when we take his consistent history into account, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that his motivations go beyond the fight against crime, perhaps bleeding into his desire to build his pursuit of Islamophobic self-promotion on the backs of certain victims.
Robinson is not the martyr he claims to be, and is not being jailed for being a journalist. When he is released from his latest prison sentence, he will almost certainly find his way back into the public eye. Next time, we should be prepared to look beyond the tearful words of Tommy Robinson, and question the rationale of the deliberate and calculating Stephen Yaxley-Lennon.