Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – better known by his pseudonym Tommy Robinson – has been making headlines again. He is currently on bail due to his proclivity for repeatedly filming himself on court premises during active rape cases, and broadcasting the footage to his sizable Facebook audience. In his capacity as a guerrilla journalist for Rebel Media, Robinson turned up outside Canterbury crown court in May 2017 and attempted to film four defendants in a Muslim Grooming Gang trial. He was charged with contempt of court as a result and given a three month suspended sentence, along with an absolutely explicit warning that any repeat offence within an 18 month period would see his three month term of imprisonment activated immediately.
“In short, Mr. Yaxley-Lennon, turn up at another court, refer to people as “Muslim paedophiles, Muslim rapists” and so on and so forth while trials are ongoing and before there has been a finding by a jury that that is what they are, and you will find yourself inside. Do you understand?” – Judge Norton. 22/05/2017. REGINA vs STEPHEN YAXLEY LENNON.
Virtually a year later to the day, whilst still under suspended sentence, Robinson turned up outside Leeds crown court, on the day of another Muslim Grooming Gang trial which was subject to blanket reporting restrictions. Armed with an iPhone, Robinson set about live streaming an hour long video of himself discussing details of the case being heard inside, and confronting several of the defendants as they entered the court. Robinson was promptly arrested, and in less time than it takes to put someone in prison for 13 months for contempt of court…found himself sitting in prison serving 13 months for contempt of court.
Robinson went on to successfully appeal against his excessively hasty incarceration and was released from HMP Onley in August over what legal types tend to call “procedural deficiencies”.
On 27th September 2018 Robinson was back in court, this time at the Old Bailey, for the retrial of the Leeds case. Having apparently learnt nothing from this whole affair, Robinson delivered a piece to camera, filmed by his former employer – Rebel Media boss Ezra Levant – from inside the court; a moment of belief-beggaring stupidity (and a breach of Section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925) which has now resulted in Levant being investigated over possible contempt of court himself.
Robinson’s case was subsequently adjourned until next month, and in the wake of these proceedings, Jason Farrell – Sky News Home Editor – decided to conduct an exclusive interview with him. If the purpose of this interview was to challenge Robinson on his behaviour and his views, as Farrell claims it was, then it serves as a textbook illustration of how not to do it.
Had Farrell stuck with discussing Robinson’s courthouse transgressions, he may have been on much firmer ground. Instead he used the opportunity to also argue the issue of Islamic fundamentalism with a man whose every waking moment is consumed by the realities of this problem. The interview therefore consisted of a smug and confrontational Farrell interrupting Robinson at every opportunity, patronising him to a similar degree, offering clueless and trite rebuttals, and otherwise demonstrating how completely out of his depth he is on this topic. In other words, Farrell demonstrated precisely the same shortcomings that so many others have displayed over the years in underestimating Robinson’s knowledge of his subject matter and his ability to argue his case. Such misjudgements from self-righteous and complacent interrogators have invariably had the counter-productive effect of increasing Robinson’s popularity and reach. This phenomenon has become so predictable to his fans, that in the immediate aftermath of any high profile, overtly hostile, and incompetent interview Robinson is subjected to, they often openly predict a dramatic surge in his number of social media followers as a consequence – and then sit back rubbing their hands as they watch it materialise in real time. Since Sky News’s bungling interview with him, Robinson’s Facebook following has increased to over one million.
There are three versions of the interview currently available: A seven minute truncated segment broadcast on Sky News, a slightly re-edited 10 minute version uploaded to the Sky News website, and a full 1 hour and 15 minute version filmed by Tommy’s cousin and EDL co-founder – Kevin Carroll – and uploaded to Robinson’s Facebook page.
The seven minute version, of which approximately only half was actual interview footage, contained perhaps the most consequential misstep – a deceptive piece of editing resulting in potential defamation – a charge which Robinson has now announced he intends to bring formally against Sky News and Jason Farrell by suing them for libel.
The ten minute and full versions of the interview show Robinson referring to an educational film shown in the Netherlands to raise awareness of Child Sexual Exploitation. Robinson then mentions the suppressed distribution of this acclaimed film in British schools, apparently on the basis of its subject matter. Farrell argues that the film – a 20 minute educational drama commissioned by the government’s Serious Organised Crime Agency – “will incite fear”. “I don’t care if it incites fear, so long as it educates children and prevents them being raped” comes Robinson’s response. However, for the seven minute version, Farrell replaces his own leading statement with a voice over which presents Robinson’s response as a reaction to a different question.
Farrell (Voiceover): “I put it to him that, as with terrorism, his opinions on grooming gangs risked demonising an entire community”.
Smash cut to Robinson responding to an entirely different point: “I don’t care if it incites fear…”
The video was posted on the Sky News website with the following headline:
This false quote was also adopted for multiple headlines across media outlets, and Sky News presenter Dermot Murnaghan even repeated this misrepresentation to introduce the interview on Sky News:
“The former leader of the English Defence League Tommy Robinson has told Sky News that he doesn’t care if his message incites fear of Muslims…”
This sloppy or outright dishonest misrepresentation of Robinson’s statement is a gigantic blunder, and does absolutely nothing to help the cause of people like Farrell who claim to be interested in challenging Robinson’s supposed hatred. Instead, what Farrell and Sky have done here is play directly into his hands. Robinson is familiar enough with the tactics of sensationalist journalism to predict how his interviews will be spun by the “Fake News Media”, and Sky News have gifted him this vindication:
There was, of course, mass-condemnation of the interview from those who view Robinson as a kind of anti-Islam Luke Skywalker who speaks nothing but the truth and can do no wrong. Likewise there was condemnation from those who see him as essentially Goebbels in a Stone Island jacket, and object to his being provided a mainstream platform. Petulant teen Owen Jones, for example, blasted Sky News on the grounds that he doesn’t want to see Robinson on the telly full stop. Jones would rather not suffer the inconvenience of hearing views he finds uncomfortable, and would like to enforce his personal squeamishness upon the rest of the nation. However, Jones did get one thing right in his criticism of Farrell:
“Your interview…didn’t land a single blow which cut through.”
Robinson is not to be taken lightly. He has a valid claim to being one of the most influential British political activists alive today. The media regulator Ofcom was inundated with more than two thousand complaints over his treatment in this interview. Thousands protested his arrest and conviction. Over 600,000 people put their names to a petition to release Robinson from prison and countless others have donated money to his cause. Stephen Knight at Godless Spellchecker has previously summarised Robinson’s power as an activist and the loyalty he commands:
“People need to realise that Tommy Robinson has more influence and followers…than many in most political circles. And when I say ‘followers’, I don’t mean people who’ve liked a page on Facebook or have engaged with (a) page on Twitter, I mean literal followers – men and women who will keenly take to the street in the cause of whatever Tommy believes. They will congregate. They will be a political force. You can’t ignore that the way you can ignore some lunatic just shouting from a street corner. He is a legitimate force and for that very reason he needs to be engaged. Because if what he’s saying is hateful and wrong, you need to demonstrate that in public so that his followers can see, and so that they can be delegitimised as well.”
Tommy Robinson does need to be engaged. The things he is right about need to be acknowledged and addressed. And the things he’s wrong about need to be challenged and debunked. And so he needs to be engaged by people who know what they’re talking about. People who are familiar with the issues, and are willing to challenge him calmly, reasonably, and rationally. Responding to Robinson’s complaints about the behavioural implications of Islam’s violent preachments, with recourse to violence in the Old Testament simply will not wash anymore.
Many people have seen Robinson’s respectable Oxford Union speech. They’ve seen his BBC1 documentary vehicle When Tommy Met Mo, in which he effortlessly came across as far more reasonable and personable than Mohammed Ansar, the preposterous and fraudulent buffoon he was pitted against. They’ve listened to his views and statements first-hand and many have come to the conclusion that Robinson has been unfairly maligned as a racist and an extremist by the British media and the chattering classes. The extent to which this is true or not is debatable, but interviews like the one Sky News conducted, certainly help to support this impression. Either way you cut it, when it comes to the topic of Islam and its behavioural implications, Tommy Robinson just happens to be right about a lot. And a lot of people are cognizant of this fact. People have legitimate and justifiable concerns about Islam, and the behaviour and attitudes it inspires in some number of its adherents.
And the people that have reached this conclusion are not necessarily stupid or racist themselves. There are an abundance of racists and cretins in Robinson’s audience, but many others are simply ordinary people who have educated themselves on Islamic doctrine, taken a keen interest in how the social impacts of such doctrines have been playing out in the real world, and are looking for someone willing and able to represent their concerns.
Robinson for his myriad faults, meets this basic requirement. He’s frequently crass, sloppy, and occasionally worse with his language, but he’s also intermittently capable of the kind of quick-witted, terse, and crushing rebuttals that many admired in Christopher Hitchens. When subjected to a stream of condescending obscurantism from Islamist Abdul Qadeer Baksh in a 2013 BBC radio debate whereby he trivialised the sharia punishment for homosexuality as a mere deterrent, Robinson countered without missing a beat:
“What Qadeer’s saying is that gays should be too scared to be gay.”
But it is in his less thoughtful moments that Robinson becomes far more questionable and deserving of pushback. Since his stint at Rebel Media, and perhaps prior, Robinson seems to have begun engaging in some very unfortunate public associations, particularly with European far-right personalities.
A video made shortly after the Manchester Arena bombing in which Robinson stands in a Manchester street and expresses his understandable anger at the events of that night by screaming that the surrounding houses are populated by “enemy combatants”, remains one of the most ludicrously irresponsible things I’ve seen in some time.
His prevarication upon discovering that Finsbury Park terrorist Darren Osborne had possibly referenced him as a catalyst for his actions, along with his seeming reluctance to unequivocally condemn Osborne’s atrocity in the most searing terms, was also deeply unimpressive.
He has repeatedly posted what he himself might refer to as “fake news”: Video clips of assaults and other crimes which he often pins on Muslims and/or immigrants yet which, after some minimal investigation, turn out not to be what Robinson claims. He once posted a news story of an attack by a white nationalist and reported it as an instance of terrorism committed by Muslims – likely a genuine mistake, but one which the slightest diligence and sense of responsibility would have prevented.
When a visibly distraught Muslim woman was photographed at the scene of last year’s Westminster Bridge terror attack, and was revoltingly castigated by social media as being indifferent to the situation and to the suffering of the victims, Robinson contributed to the victimisation of this blameless woman, who was as much a victim as any other witness that day.
Having shot a video of himself ranting into his smart phone about British born Mayor of London Sadiq Khan being “part of an invasion into our country”, he then took the time to upload and share this outburst with his audience – time which would have been much better spent seriously contemplating how this kind of rhetoric makes him sound. And this was not the first time he’d co-opted language which is indistinguishable from racists. His depiction of mass-immigration as literal genocide, is straight out of the alt-right/far-right playbook.
He rejects mainstream media as “fake news” but recommends as suitable alternatives Alex Jones’s highly conspiratorial nuthouse InfoWars, and Breitbart News – a controversial website whose litany of offenses to truth and accuracy reached peak hilarity when they published a story about the use of jet skis to smuggle migrants, illustrated by a photo of professional footballer Lukas Podolski on holiday.
Even his response to accusations of racism with the tiresome rhetorical pedantry “what race are Muslims?” has begun to overstay its welcome. He’s of course correct that Muslim is a religious identity and not a racial one, but he’s also well aware that it is perfectly possible to oppose Islam due to a bigoted hatred of Muslim people and/or a racist hatred of brown skinned Pakistanis and Middle Easterners etc. He understands perfectly the crux of what is being alleged, and he should address charges of this kind head-on rather than with dismissive word games and diversionary quips.
His actions at Canterbury and Leeds courts were needlessly reckless. Although I can effortlessly understand the appeal of utterly despicable rapists and child abusers being confronted and harassed by an incensed oik with a camera phone, Robinson’s antics had the potential to prejudice the jury, to derail the trial, or to collapse it completely. There is precedent for this kind of outcome. In 2012 both The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror were found guilty of contempt of court and fined £10,000 for their reporting on the conviction of serial killer Levi Bellfield. While the jury were still deliberating on accusations that Bellfield had attempted to abduct schoolgirl Rachel Cowles, these newspapers published prejudicial material which caused the case to fold and the jury to be discharged. Cowles never received justice.
And so whilst I have sympathy for elements of Robinson’s message, the way that he often goes about delivering this message is an issue that I can’t, in good conscious, ignore. But whilst it is invariably noted that Robinson is a divisive figure, he is also a contradictory and complicated one. I’ve seen him retweet actual neo-Nazis and White Supremacists such as Mark Collett and Nick Griffin, yet I’ve also seen him verbally attack and condemn Griffin in withering terms, burn Swastikas in symbolic displays, and threaten to beat up people for throwing Nazi salutes.
I’ve seen him make remarks that sail extremely close to bigotry on the one hand, yet I’ve also seen him continually make statements deploring bigotry on the other. On one occasion he jumped into a Twitter argument I was having, to support me as I was berating several of his genuinely bigoted followers who had been denouncing all Muslims as the enemy.
I’ve seen him make his notorious (and subsequently regretted) proclamation accusing all Muslims of complicity in the 7/7 bombings, yet I’ve also seen him treat a mentally ill Muslim youth who threatened to murder his family, with admirable restraint, compassion, and kindness.
The repeated painting of Robinson as a fascist, racist monster, has had precisely the reverse of its intended effect. The truth about Robinson is more nuanced. And so when people who share some or many of his concerns struggle to find concrete evidence of his racism and fascism, but instead find ample evidence of his words being dishonestly twisted and his points being unconvincingly contended, the pendulum of public opinion begins to swing in the opposite direction. And when they witness a man who they have common cause with being described in such terms, they essentially hear themselves being portrayed in this way.
And so Owen Jones is half-correct when he moans that the empowerment of Tommy Robinson is “thanks in large part to the media.” But he’s wrong about why. His ham-fisted treatment by the mainstream media notwithstanding, Robinson has effortlessly filled the void that they have inadvertently created. The BBC and Channel 4’s ludicrous policy of referring to ISIS as “so-called Islamic State” for instance, has only increased the appetite of people who don’t want to be patronised in this way to demand candid, straight-talking discourse.
It remains to be seen where the story goes from here, but if Robinson’s support is ever to dwindle, it won’t be due to interviews like the one conducted by Jason Farrell and Sky News legitimising his narrative and making all the same mistakes which contributed to his popularity in the first place.