By Patrick Williamson
Time and again, when politicised law-breakers are reprimanded, cries of ‘freedom of speech’, ‘hatchet judges’, and ‘authoritarianism’ rise to the fore. This is usually exclusive to criminals on the right of the political spectrum. Such claims of political repression are often misguided and used as a cloak for personal political ambitions. The conviction, and recent release, of English Defence League-founder Stephen Yaxley-Lennon is an illuminating example.
In May this year, Yaxley-Lennon (better known by the pseudonym ‘Tommy Robinson’) was convicted of Contempt of Court. He had been streaming a Facebook Live video during one of three trials of members of a suspected grooming gang outside Leeds Crown Court.
Like many British trials, blanket reporting restrictions had been implemented to prevent the three linked trials collapsing. Yaxley-Lennon’s video, viewed in the tens of thousands and “highly prejudicial” to a jury, according to Judge Marson, risked a mistrial. This brought the prospect of the suspects escaping on a technicality.
Yaxley-Lennon has an ominously low regard for the laws and norms of British society. He is no suppressed freedom-fighter.
Yaxley-Lennon’s conviction, apparently “rushed”, with a lack of “clarity” about what constituted as contempt, and Robinson having quickly removed the video from Facebook, was appealed this August. Winning his case at the Court of Appeals, Robinson is now awaiting a new trial.
Expectedly, Yaxley-Lennon and his nationalist following are claiming that this is a jubilant victory for freedom of speech in the face of liberal-leaning judges. Another ‘hatchet’ conviction has been overturned, they say. This is a complete and utter distortion.
Neither his conviction nor his release were freedom of speech issues. The far-right was not being silenced indefinitely – press reporting had been ‘postponed’ for all until the end of the trial. And Yaxley-Lennon is still yet to face another trial – his conviction has not been overturned.
The EDL-founder is adored by the alt-right as a valiant defender of British law against Sharia courts, protecting the liberal freedoms we all hold so close. A particular emphasis is placed upon freedom of speech. But he is perhaps the least suitable candidate for such a role.
Yaxley-Lennon is no suppressed freedom-fighter, but a serial assaulter and mortgage fraudster. His pseudonym is even adopted from the name of a prominent football hooligan. He has an ominously low regard for the laws and norms of British society, and even less regard for ensuring the British judicial system operates effectively. May was not the first time Yaxley-Lennon has been convicted of contempt of court. His history of risking jeopardising the convictions of suspected sexual predators is deeply disconcerting. Ironically, his activism does not assist with the reprisal of Muslim grooming gangs but impedes it.
Perhaps justice isn’t what Yaxley-Lennon has in mind. Not only has his social media following skyrocketed since his imprisonment, but his financial standing has, too. He encourages financial donations via his website, and has received almost £20,000 in Bitcoin since his arrest. Naked greed and attention motivate him, not altruism.
Yaxley-Lennon’s alt-right nationalist followers are not mindless victims, either. Granted, most of them could heavily benefit from a lesson in jurisprudence, but petitions like one on Change.org, signed by over 120,000 demanding ‘Tommy’ be ‘freed’ with absolutely no legal basis are only too quick to appear. Following its leader, the hypocritical ‘Free Tommy’ movement reveals little appetite for a fair judicial system.
The followers Yaxley-Lennon has accumulated embody a wider, dangerous ‘pick-and-mix’ attitude towards liberal democratic freedoms. Certain civil rights and liberties, like freedom of speech, are taken to their logical extreme while others, particularly the right to a fair trial and religious freedom, are viewed as largely irrelevant. It is not difficult to reveal the insincerity of their regard for ‘freedom of speech’, afforded to far-right voices, and at the expense of other crucial pillars to liberal society.
He is no suppressed freedom-fighter, but a serial assaulter and mortgage fraudster.
Yaxley-Lennon’s new trial is not a victory for free speech. He is a beneficiary of procedural rules and the right to a fair trial. Perhaps he should be more grateful for such privileges rather than constantly seeking to undermine them.
Title Image by Kristoffer Trolle via Flickr