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29 May 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 11:06am

Tommy Robinson is a self-interested idiot, not a brave truth teller

But his case shows how easily the UK’s court reporting laws can be exploited by a charlatan.

By James Ball

“Tommy Robinson, the former EDL leader, has been secretly jailed for more than a year for trying to report the truth on a major trial and the UK media is complicit in a cover-up – despite a 460,000 signature petition and hundreds of people protesting outside 10 Downing Street.”

That’s the narrative you would have seen had you stumbled across the case on social media – or Googled his name – at any point over the weekend. It’s littered with inaccuracies to the point of outright falsehood, but until Monday the entire UK media was muzzled from correcting any of this dangerous and racially-charged misinformation.

Let’s start by unpicking the actual facts of the case; before tackling how the UK’s laws, and how judges choose to enforce them, may have proved a gift to the far-right across the world.

Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – “Tommy Robinson” is a pseudonym – was indeed sentenced to 13 months imprisonment on Friday. The sentence was due to Yaxley-Lennon using Facebook Live to live-stream from outside a UK court building.

There are still some reporting restrictions affecting coverage of his crimes – so we cannot go into detail here (more on this later) – but his behaviour included shouting at defendants of an ongoing case in a manner that suggested they were guilty, at a time that it would have been possible for jurors to have heard him.

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The UK has strict rules on what can be reported between the point of arrest and the subsequent conviction or acquittal, with any material that could make it harder for someone to get a fair trial strictly forbidden. Trials have collapsed – at the cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds – because such rules have been broken, and defence solicitors and barristers often seize upon such opportunities: breaking these contempt laws make it harder to get justice for anyone.

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Yaxley-Lennon was thoroughly aware of these laws because he had already been convicted of breaking them last year, and told in no uncertain terms that if he did so again he would go to prison.

That’s what happened on Friday: he broke that law, admitted doing so, and was sentenced to ten months in jail for the new offence – as well as being required to serve the three-months jail time for the offence committed last year, a sentence that had been previously “suspended” provided he behaved well. This was a normal and standard UK court procedure, with no political involvement.

However – as Yaxley-Lennon would have also been well aware – that was not how the decision was portrayed by the far-right across the world, especially huge outlets with major following in the US. For the full weekend they painted a lurid and wildly inaccurate version of the story, alleging a UK establishment cover-up throughout, with the silence from the UK media in response seeming to confirm their allegations.

The reality of the situation was that the UK media was covered by similar reporting restrictions to those that Yaxley-Lennon broke: in short, the judge who sentenced him was concerned that reporting on Yaxley-Lennon’s case could risk a fair trial in the original case Yaxley-Lennon was “reporting” on.

That cautious decision meant the UK media was powerless to report any of the real facts of the case, even as huge outlets beyond the reach of UK courts spread wild misinformation. On Monday – thanks to a challenge by local media outlets – those restrictions were relaxed (but not lifted entirely), meaning we can now start to counter some of the lies.

However, this has all come 72 hours too late. By now, millions of people will believe the false version of events, and the real facts have little hope of reaching those audiences. By trying to control the flow of information using tactics suited to the pre-internet era, the judicial restrictions have made the situation much worse.

Let’s be clear: while these laws are in action, and while they can lead to the collapse of trials, and to defendants walking free, these laws should be followed: to purposely flout them for fame is not an act of truth-telling, but an act of ego, of self-promotion, and of contempt for real victims of crime. Yaxley-Lennon is a bigoted and self-interested idiot, not a reporter.

But now we have seen just how easily these laws can be exploited by charlatans like Yaxley-Lennon, we should take the time to reassess both the laws and how they are enforced: are they really serving the causes of justice, or the causes of free and fair information?

Last time the Law Commission reassessed how contempt laws worked online, proposals included shutting off the UK from the rest of the internet with a Chinese-style Great Firewall – a hugely illiberal and impractical proposal which would play directly into the hands of the global far-right.

Nevertheless it’s time the commission looked again at how these laws work in the context of a globally inter-connected world where people with little respect for the truth – but vicious and divisive agendas – have access to audiences of millions. People who know how to turn any apparent “censorship” into huge PR victories. If these are the people who are benefitting from our contempt laws, it’s time those laws adapted.