The latest controversy is maddening for many reasons.Tommy Robinson is a British political activist and “citizen journalist” who came to prominence in Britain almost a decade ago when he founded the English Defence League. The EDL was a street-protest movement in Britain whose aims could probably best be summarized as “anti-Islamization.” It emerged in the town of Luton after a group of local Islamists barracked the homecoming parade of a local regiment returning from service in Afghanistan.
From their earliest protests the EDL’s members sought to highlight issues including sharia law, Islam’s attitudes toward minorities, and the phenomenon that would become euphemistically known as “grooming gangs.” In reality these protests often descended into hooliganism and low-level violence (naturally helped along by self-described “anti-fascists”). The authorities did everything they could to stop the EDL, and the media did everything possible to demonize them. In a foretaste of things to come, very few people made any effort to understand them. And nobody paid any price for (indeed many people benefited from) claiming that the EDL was simply a fascist organization and that anybody who even tried to understand them must be a fascist too. The usual prohibition against sweeping generalizations doesn’t seem to apply if the generalization tilts in that direction.
I interviewed Tommy Robinson five years ago, after he had left the EDL (having by his own admission failed to keep extremists including actual neo-Nazis away from the movement). As he said then, one of the problems of everyone insisting that a particular movement is campaigning for the Fourth Reich is that the few people who think that sounds like a great idea will show up. Whatever his other faults, there is no evidence that Robinson thinks that way. Indeed he was once charged with assault for head-butting a Nazi sympathizer who wouldn’t leave an EDL protest. Not many people bothered with those details. The assault got reported, but not the cause. So the fact that Robinson had head-butted a Nazi became yet more evidence that he himself must be some kind of Nazi.
Anyhow — Robinson wised up slightly, and eventually began to plough his energies into a type of citizen journalism/activism. Some of this has been remarkably brave, some of it remarkably wrong (such as a video he made after last year’s Manchester Arena attack, in which he seemed to furiously suggest that everyone living around a particular mosque in the area must be some type of enemy combatant), and some remarkably ill-advised — not least because it has allowed him to be presented in the worst possible light.
For example, a couple of months ago Robinson went to Italy. In May of last year an Italian television crew reporting on migrants in Rome had been attacked by some migrants near a local train station. The female presenter was assaulted, and the whole thing became big news in Italy. But in the normal modern European fashion, after much tut-tutting everybody went back to the safe semantic discussions we like to have. Such as whether or not the term “no-go zone” is exactly appropriate to describe an area where a female journalist cannot go without being physically assaulted. So round and round we go.
Robinson took another view and turned up a while later at the same spot with his own camera crew to find that nothing had changed. The area was still dominated by migrants, and a number swiftly demanded that he leave. One of them then got into a tense stand-off with Robinson, and at one point, as Robinson turned his back on him, this man raised his hands over Robinson and said something like “I can kill you.” At which point Robinson promptly turned around and punched the man in the face. As so often it was a gift to his critics. This episode was reported in the Daily Mail Online under the headline “Far-right thug Tommy Robinson punches a migrant in Rome while filming in an apparent ‘no-go zone.’” The decision over where to put the scare quotes in that headline (and where not to) tells its own story about modern European mores.
The controversy around him continued. In March, Robinson was suspended from Twitter, where he had almost half a million followers. The social-media site (which merrily allows terrorist groups like Lashkar e-Taiba to keep accounts) decided that Robinson should be suspended for tweeting out a statistic about Muslim rape gangs that itself originated from the Muslim-run Quilliam foundation. And it is on this matter that the latest episode in the Robinson drama started — and has now drawn worldwide attention.
Ten years ago, when the EDL was founded, the U.K. was even less willing than it is now to confront the issue of what are euphemistically described as “Asian grooming gangs” (euphemistic because no Chinese or Koreans are involved and what is happening is not grooming but mass rape). At the time, only a couple of such cases had been recognized. Ten years on, every month brings news of another town in which gangs of men (almost always of Pakistani origin) have been found to have raped young, often underage, white girls. The facts of this reality — which, it cannot be denied, sounds like something from the fantasies of the most lurid racist — have now been confirmed multiple times by judges during sentencing and also by the most mainstream investigative journalists in the country.
But the whole subject is so ugly and uncomfortable that very few people care to linger over it. Robinson is an exception. For him — as he said in a 2011 interview with the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman — the “grooming gangs” issue isn’t something that afflicts some far-off towns but people in the working-class communities that he knows. And while there are journalists (notably the Times’ Andrew Norfolk) who have spent considerable time and energy bringing this appalling phenomenon to light, most of British society has turned away in a combination of embarrassment, disgust, and uncertainty about how to even talk about this. Anyone who thinks Britain is much further along with dealing with the taboo of “grooming gangs” should remember that only last year the Labour MP for Rotherham, Sarah Champion, had to leave the shadow cabinet because she accurately identified the phenomenon.
Which brings me to last Friday. That was when Robinson was filming outside Leeds Crown Court, where the latest grooming-gang case was going on. I have to be slightly careful here, because although National Review is based in the U.S., I am not, and there are reporting restrictions on the ongoing case. Anyhow, Robinson was outside the court and appeared (from the full livestream) to be filming the accused and accosting them with questions on their way in. He also appeared to exercise some caution, trying to ensure he was not on court property.
It isn’t the worst thing in the world (it isn’t child rape, for instance), but it is an offense to which Robinson understandably pleaded guilty.
But clearly he did not exercise enough caution, a strange fact given that last year Robinson had been found guilty of “contempt of court” for filming outside another rape-gang trial, one involving four Muslim men at Canterbury Crown Court. On that occasion Robinson was given a three-month prison sentence, which was suspended for a period of 18 months. Which meant he would be free so long as he did not repeat the offense.
Although Robinson appeared to be careful at Leeds Crown Court last Friday, to dance along the line of exactly what he could or could not livestream outside an ongoing trial with a suspended sentence hanging over his head was extraordinarily unwise. What happened next went around the world: The police turned up in a van and swiftly arrested Robinson for “breach of the peace.” Within hours Robinson had been put before one Judge Geoffrey Marson, who in under five minutes tried, convicted, and sentenced Robinson to 13 months. He was immediately taken to prison.
From that moment it was not just Robinson but the U.K. that entered a minefield of legal problems. In addition to the usual reporting restrictions on the ongoing trial, a reporting ban was put on any mention of Robinson’s arrest, swift trial, and conviction, meaning that for days people in the blogosphere and the international media got free rein to claim that Tommy Robinson had been arrested for no reason, that his arrest was a demonstration of a totalitarian state cracking down on free speech, and even (and this one is remarkably clueless as well as careless) that the recent appointment to the position of home secretary of Sajid Javid — who was born to Muslim parents — is the direct cause of Robinson’s recent arrest.
The facts are both more prosaic and depressing. Robinson would not now be in jail if he had not once again accosted defendants in an ongoing trial outside the courthouse. He had been told by a judge last May not to do this and yet he did this again. It isn’t the worst thing in the world (it isn’t child rape, for instance), but it is an offense to which Robinson understandably pleaded guilty. More important, the trial that was coming to a close last Friday is just one part of a trial involving multiple other defendants. It is certainly possible that Robinson’s breaking of reporting restrictions at the Leeds trial could have prejudiced those trials. To have caused the collapse of such a trial would have been more than a blunder; it would have been an additional blow to victims who deserve justice.
Some supporters of Robinson have been pointing out that there have been reporters outside the trials of celebrities accused of child abuse (Rolf Harris, for instance). But the comparison isn’t exact. It is exceptionally difficult to put reporting restrictions on the trial of a household name, and difficult to select jurors with no views on the defendants. The fact that this legal complexity exists in some cases does not mean that an additional layer of difficulty ought to be overlaid on the already-difficult-enough attempts to bring to justice gangs of otherwise unknown men. In any case, accosting a celebrity on their way into court would also be an offense.
The whole affair is in many ways maddening. Maddening that Robinson stepped over a line that had been very clearly drawn for him. Maddening that he gave the police and courts a legitimate reason to arrest him. And maddening because, as he must have known (and as I have said a number of times over the years, including during a speech at the Danish Parliament three years ago), it is by now abundantly clear that every arm of the British state has been out to get Tommy Robinson from the moment he emerged on the scene in Luton a decade ago.
The problem — as I said in 2015 — is that any challenge Robinson presents is all a secondary issue. The primary issue is that for years the British state allowed gangs of men to rape thousands of young girls across Britain. For years the police, politicians, Crown Prosecution Service, and every other arm of the state ostensibly dedicated to protecting these girls failed them. As a number of government inquires have concluded, they turned their face away from these girls because they were terrified of the accusations of racism that would come their way if they did address them. They decided it wasn’t worth the aggravation.
By contrast, Tommy Robinson thought it was worth the aggravation, even if that meant having his whole life turned upside down. Some years ago, after crawling over all of his personal affairs and the affairs of all his immediate family, the police found an irregularity on a mortgage application, prosecuted Robinson, convicted him, and sent him to prison on that charge. In prison he was assaulted and almost killed by Muslim inmates.
Tommy Robinson will be in prison for another year. And all those people happy with the status quo will breathe a sigh of relief.
What can be said with absolute certainty is that Tommy Robinson has been treated with greater suspicion and a greater presumption of guilt by the United Kingdom than any Islamic extremist or mass rapist ever has been. That should be — yet is not — a national scandal. If even one mullah or sheikh had been treated with the presumption of guilt that Robinson has received, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the rest of them would be all over the U.K. authorities. But different standards apply to Robinson.
And on it goes. On Sunday there was a protest in London in support of him. The legal blogger “The Secret Barrister” might have spoken for a whole nose-holding class when he dismissed this protest as “a Nazi-themed march.” Look at the video he links to and you will see a lot of people with their arms in the air chanting “Oh Tommy Robinson.” If our eminent legal correspondent thinks this is Nazi-themed, he can never have been to a football match or, come to that, a Jeremy Corbyn rally.
So it will continue. Tommy Robinson will be in prison for another year. And all those people happy with the status quo will breathe a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness that troublemaker has gone away.” Yet their real problem has not gone away. There is no chance of their real problem going away. Because they have no plan for making it go away.
They have a vague hope, of course, which is that at some point soon in the coming generations this will all simmer down and the incoming communities will develop similar views about the status of women as the rest of society. And perhaps we will get there someday. But it is telling that the apparently tolerable roadkill en route includes one young man from Luton — and thousands of raped girls.