You might have seen #FreeTommy floating around social media the last couple of days, and there currently appears to be a lot of misinformation as to why Tommy Robinson, former English Defence League leader, has been imprisoned. The far-right media will have you believe that his imprisonment was for Robinson merely exercising his free speech rights as a legitimate reporter of a court case, but this is far from the truth.
Robinson, legally known as Stephen Yaxley-Lennon has been sentenced for 13 months in prison for contempt of court. This means he has undermined the legitimacy of the court, and risked the tainting or collapse of a trial because of his actions. In a country where free and fair trials are important, this is a serious offence, and one he was fully aware he was committing. It has to be dealt with quickly, so as to minimise damage to ongoing cases, which is exactly what happened with Robinson - it was nothing sinister.
Understanding the law
To understand what is going on there are some core concepts you first need to know.
In this country, everyone has the right to a fair trial, and it is presumed that you are innocent until proven guilty. The standard of proof for criminal proceedings is beyond a reasonable doubt. In cases of Crown prosecutions, this means that a jury find, that based on the evidence presented, they can say beyond reasonable doubt that you are guilty of the crime.
The press are allowed to report on court cases, but there are a number of instances where reporting restrictions are enforced. There are both statutory reporting restrictions (enshrined in law) and discretionary restrictions that a judge can mandate.
An example of a statutory, Section 1 of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 makes it illegal to publish anything that could end the lifelong anonymity to a victim of that offence. That includes not just their name, but any indefitable particulars such as their address, their employment or school place, or any imagery of them.
Another important law for a reporter is s.41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925, which makes it illegal to take, or attempt to take photographs or film in the court, its building or precincts. It also prohibits sketches or portraits being created on sight that capture any of the jury, witnesses, party, or judge of the court. This ban also includes photographing or filming anyone entering or leaving the court, its buildings or its precincts. Although a statutory restriction, breaching this law can also be treated as contempt of court if a judge deems it to be interfering with the course of justice. Remember this, as it’s important for later.
Contempt of court
At its most basic, contempt law exists to ensure that trials are fair. There is different types of contempt law, but an individual (or media organisation) can be found to be in strict liability contempt if they publish anything that could create a substantive risk of serious prejudice or impediment to particular proceedings, irrespective of their intentions. That essentially means people aren’t allowed to publish material that, if seen by the jury, could swing their opinion one way or the other. If Joe Bloggs was on trial accused of murder and the papers released a big feature on how he works at soup kitchens, donates blood and tends to wounded animals, the jury might be swayed by that and not then consider the facts presented.
The Contempt of Court Act 1981 is a body of law that covers the many aspects of strict liability contempt. It has many sections to it, including attempting to obtain information from or about the jury (s.8), and the the prohibition of audio recording in the court (s.9).
However, the act of relevance is s.4(2), which relates to the postponement of court reporting. This could be issued by a judge in four situations:
If there is one case and multiple defendants all pleading differently
If there is one defendant with multiple charges
If there is a trial within a trial, for example if deliberating if something can be accepted as evidence
In cases of a tainted acquittal
So what does this have to do with Tommy?
As it so happens, a lot.
It so happens that in 2017, Tommy Robinson was arrested and charged with contempt of court for livestreaming outside of Canterbury Crown Court. The case in question was a gang rape trial where the accused just happened to be asian. The broadcast was called “Tommy Robinson in Canterbury exposing Muslim child rapists” and he aimed to capture on film the defendants leaving the courthouse. He failed to do so, but nonetheless used inflammatory and biased language insinuating guilt that could have collapsed the whole case had the defence proved it swayed the jury. For his efforts he was sentenced to three months, suspended for 18 months.
Fast forward to 2018 and media outlets were initially reporting that Tommy Robinson had been arrested outside of Leeds Court on 25 May for breaching the peace - a law the police can use to hold people who are causing, or at risk of causing violence, or may see violence against them. This much was true.
It then became hazy as to why he had been sentenced 13-months, and this was used by the right-wing press to say he was being held to silence him. This was false.
Tommy Robinson was arrested for breaching the peace, but then charged with contempt of court for recording outside of the court building, and trying to capture people entering and leaving the building. He knew that what he was doing was against the law, not only because he said so on the video, but because he had already been arrested and charged for the same offence. So to turn up in Leeds to do the exact same thing, and then try to provoke outrage at the outcome is ludicrous.
Why the confusion?
It turns out that Robinson’s hearing was subject to the same reporting restrictions as the case he was potentially sabotaging - s.4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act. This prevented (legitimate) news organisations from reporting the facts of his case, as the judge apparently feared a media circus from the right-wing. However, as the far-right media both in the UK and abroad failed to acknowledge the court order, they were essentially free to publish misinformation around the whole case.
The judge was convinced to lift the ban after The Independent and Leeds Live challenged that the restriction was just allowing the perpetuation of misinformation.
What do we take from this?
Firstly, you hopefully have an understanding of the complexities of reporting on court cases, and the importance of being exceptionally careful about what you write about an ongoing trial.
Secondly, you should take refuge in the fact that Tommy Robinson is not an example of our eroding free speech rights. He was arrested for breaking the law, and doing so in a way that undermined the court system and could have resulted in a case collapsing, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds for a mistrial.
Thirdly, it’s worth perhaps re-evaluating who you hold up as the herald of free speech and legitimate reporting if you have been upset by Robinson’s imprisonment. He was fully aware that he was breaking the law, and what that risked, and demonstrated no desire to deliver impartial or even accurate reporting. His claims of speaking out against rapists hold no water when you note his audible silence over the 17-year sentence an EDL member received this year over historic sexual abuse.
Finally, this whole drama demonstrates the worrying reality, or indeed the rejection of reality, in both politics and the media in the UK at the minute. Tribalism is rampant, and there is a total disregard of the laws designed to protect us against unfair imprisonment. Racism and islamophobia are being used as examples of free speech being under siege, and idiots like Tommy Robinson are conflating that by undermining the credibility of legitimate reporters with his own bigoted agenda. ‘Fake news’ is the in-thing, and this case has demonstrated that peddlers of such misinformation have no regard for the law. It’s truly concerning to see it play out, and feels very much imported from America.
Tommy Robinson is a hypocritical racist who broke the conditions of his suspended sentence and risked the collapse of a case, and so was imprisoned for contempt of court. Nothing to see here.
Photo: Andy Thornley