By the Editorial Board
We have the misfortune to live in an era which is characterized by intense political polarization.
Furthermore, all of us are guilty, to some extent, of failing to take a stand against the errors and misjudgments of those we consider, broadly speaking, to be allies. We do this even as we condemn those whom we regard as our foes.
Showing some degree of forbearance in respect of the shortcomings of friends is socially understandable. In politics, there is also a crucial driver: the desire to raise a “big tent”, not a small outpost, pleasingly pure, perhaps, but of no significance.
But has there ever been a more unimpressive alliance than that which is emerging between sections of the Western right and the British rabble rouser, Tommy Robinson?
Tommy Robinson is the nom de guerre of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, a hooligan with a long history of convictions for offences of violence and dishonesty stretching back to the period before his involvement with the English Defence League (EDL), the organisation which he formerly led.
After various twists and turns, including a short-lived episode where he appeared alongside Maajid Nawaz of the anti-extremist organisation Quilliam and claimed to have put hate-mongering behind him, the soap opera took a new turn. Robinson rebranded as “a journalist, activist and public figure fighting for the forgotten people of the UK”.
Over the past five years, a scandal has gripped the United Kingdom. In a number of cities across the country, a series of defendants involved in “grooming gangs”, who raped and prostituted vulnerable and mostly white girls, have been arrested, prosecuted and convicted. The overwhelming majority of those so convicted, as a recent report by Quilliam noted, are from families of Muslim and typically Pakistani origin. It became clear that the abuse had taken place for many years, and that many of the offenders and victims were known to the police and social services, who took little or no action.
The reasons for the failure of law enforcement and public services to address this dismal situation are varied, but include a lack of care for the victims, who were treated as semi-criminals with loose sexual morals, combined in some cases with the worry that to investigate such conduct would result in accusations of racism and Islamophobia.
If the concern was to protect community relations, a policy of Nelsonian blindness could not have been more of a disaster. Many people are under the impression that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service cannot be trusted to protect defenseless children from serious sexual crime, if the criminals are Muslims. Indeed, they believe that the British state as a whole is complicit in the cover-up of such offences.
Into this troubled picture steps Tommy Robinson. Robinson has had relatively little new to add to the debate. The trials of the grooming gangs have largely now taken place, and the criminals are justly in prison. Nazir Afzal, the crown prosecutor who put them behind bars, is a celebrated public figure. Articles and books have been written about the scandal. An acclaimed and shocking film about the struggle to bring the Rochdale offenders to justice has been aired. The Greater Manchester Police have been subjected to scathing criticism following an investigation by their regulator, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, and have properly apologized for their failures.
But Tommy Robinson, at a loose end following a prison sentence for mortgage fraud, has found a new gig as a correspondent for The Rebel Media. The tail end of the grooming gang trials provided him with the opportunity to present himself as a free speech advocate, and ultimately a martyr. It is in this newest incarnation that he has forged an alliance with the North American Right, as well as some European figures, including the Dutch politician Geert Wilders.
Geert Wilders at a “Free Tommy” demonstration in London
The crunch came during a trial in Leeds of a number of defendants in a grooming gang case. Although British trials are generally fully reported by the press, in all their details, there are rare occasions where short-lived reporting restrictions are put in place. One of the purposes of these reporting restrictions, where a series of linked trials occurs, is to ensure that successive trials can take place without the risk of jeopardizing the proceedings. Put simply: in the absence of such restrictions, a defendant could appeal on the basis that he did not receive a fair trial.
Tommy Robinson must have known that this was the reason that reporting restrictions had been put in place. He had, after all, received a suspended sentence of imprisonment on 22 May 2017 for filming within a court, as a result of which he had every opportunity to disabuse himself of any suspicion that the process was some sort of device to enable defendants to escape justice. He was told in clear terms by the trial judge HHJ Norton what the rationale of the contempt of court case was:
This contempt hearing is not about free speech. This is not about freedom of the press. This is not about legitimate journalism; this is not about political correctness; this is not about whether one political viewpoint is right or another. It is about justice, and it is about ensuring that a trial can be carried out justly and fairly. It is about ensuring that a jury are not in any way inhibited from carrying out their important function. It is about being innocent until proven guilty.
The judge also explained to Robinson that, without such protections, a trial might have to be abandoned, and the opportunity for a conviction could be lost:
If something of the nature of that which you put out on social media had been put into the mainstream press I would have been faced with applications from the defence advocates concerned, I have no doubt, to either say something specific to the jury, or worse, to abandon the trial and to start again. That is the kind of thing that actions such as these can and do have, and that is why you have been dealt with in the way in which you have and why I am dealing with this case with the seriousness which I am.
Despite this clear explanation, warning and conviction, Robinson repeated the offence outside Leeds Crown Court on 25 May 2018. He was arrested, subjected to new contempt of court proceedings, convicted, and imprisoned. The previous suspended sentence which he had received in 2017 was activated.
All judges, in all courts, in all jurisdictions operate rules of procedure which are designed to protect the integrity of the criminal justice process. They are an essential component of the Rule of Law, and without them, a system of justice could not function.
In this deeply serious context, it hardly helps to misrepresent the ordinary functioning of criminal trials as some kind of conspiracy against free speech, or those who raise concerns about Islamism. None of this assists in putting rapists in prison. Neither does it aid us in the struggle against Islamist politics. Indeed, as far as we know, none of the defendants in any of the trials were activists in Islamist organizations: they were petty criminals and child abusers, not jihadists.
Daniel Pipes, of all people, should be aware of how conspiracy theories undermine politics. His book “Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where It Comes From” should arguably be read by anybody who seeks to understand our polarized and conspiracist era. That is why it is particularly disappointing to see his Middle East Forum not only cheerleading for Robinson, but promulgating an utterly misleading account of the events which led to his imprisonment.
In the Forum press release of 8 July 2018, Daniel Pipes said, in his capacity as the Forum’s president:
The police allow rape gangs to operate for decades but swoop down within minutes on Tommy Robinson for a peccadillo.
It is true that the police failed in their duty to prevent and prosecute child rape on an industrial scale. That, however, has no relevance to the speed of the contempt of court hearing which Robinson faced. All contempt of court hearings take place within the context of an ongoing trial. They are a central part of the mechanism by which trials are kept on track and speed is of the essence.
The press release also repeats the untruth that Robinson “was tricked out of the right to confer with counsel”. Not so. As the prominent blogger The Secret Barrister explains:
In the Crown Court hearing he was advised and represented by a specialist criminal barrister with over 16 years of experience of cases including murder, people-trafficking, serious violence and serious sexual offences. As an independent barrister, this professional prosecutes as well as defends (most of us do), but his website profile in fact emphasises his experience as a defence advocate. In other words, Yaxley-Lennon had a top-notch defence barrister fighting his corner.
In the press release, Gregg Roman, the director of the Middle East Forum, makes this comment:
[A]ll decent people must support his right to discuss controversial matters without fear of arrest, secret trial, and imprisonment.
Robinson was not imprisoned for discussing Islamism. He was arrested for imperiling a trial, in contempt of court, having been told that the potential consequences of his conduct would be to cause a serious trial to collapse. Neither was the trial held in secret: it was attended by journalists and only temporarily subjected to the same reporting restrictions which governed the grooming gang trial as a whole.
The whole affair has resulted in enormous peril for those on the US and European right who have rallied to Robinson’s standard. A “Free Tommy” rally in London on 14 July is being supported by the Middle East Forum. Scheduled speakers include US Congressman Paul Gosar, a man who has been denounced by his own family for “deceit” and an “anti-Semitic dog whistle”, and Geert Wilders.
Let us hope that the rally takes place without violence and public disorder. Past experiences of such events do not bode well. In a June demonstration supported by the Forum, a rabble ran through the streets of London, attacking the police.
At another “Free Tommy” demonstration in May, bellowing protesters even attempted to scale the gates of Downing Street, the residence of the Prime Minister.
Robinson must appear to be a bright star to those on the Western right who have fallen under his spell. They will be sorely disappointed. Any involvement with this man inevitably ends in disaster and recriminations. He is not a man to be trusted. He is, in fact, a social arsonist, not a star.
For a start, when Islamist demonstrations end in violence, and when Islamists themselves break the law, how will those who supported Robinson be able to call them to account? When Islamists engage in conduct designed to undermine trials, how can they be criticised by those who have defended Robinson’s conduct? The charge of hypocrisy will be easy to make.
If we care for the survival of democratic institutions, freedom of expression, reasoned debate and the rule of law, then it is vital that we stand firmly against conspiracist scaremongering. And if we want to support those who have put their lives on the line in the struggle against Islamist politics, there are many far better and braver people than Tommy Robinson. They are the truly embattled figures who desperately need our assistance.