Tommy Robinsons US fan club is exporting the alt-right to Britain
The thing about conspiracy theories is that the more evidence there is disproving them, the more their supporters dig in their heels.
GM crops will turn us into mutants. Vaccines cause autism. Julian Assange was set up by the CIA. Facts, figures, and expert analysis do no good – in fact, they are part of the conspiracy, an attempt by the establishment to drown out inconvenient “truths”.
And, like so many things, the Americans do it all on a bigger, bolder scale.
This week has offered a textbook study in how to manufacture a conspiracy theory.
Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – who self-styles as Tommy Robinson – is not a martyr to free speech. He is an anti-Islam alt-right agitator, who co-funded the nationalist English Defence League (EDL), has broken the law on multiple occasions, and jeopardised the trials of accused child rapists.
But his plight at the hands of the British legal system has sparked an international movement under the hashtag #FreeTommy (including a protest march to Downing Street), and become a lightning rod for those across the pond who believe dystopian Britain is run by radical Islamists and rapist-sympathisers.
First, a quick overview of the facts. Britains contempt of court laws are straightforward. In the UK, youre not allowed to interfere with an ongoing trial in a way that might influence the proceedings.
That includes posting videos about “Muslim paedophiles” and trying to film defendants entering the courtroom – as Yaxley-Lennon did. He wasnt “reporting” – no legitimate reporter would have behaved in a way that could prejudice the jury and give the defence team grounds to argue that a fair trial would now be impossible, collapsing the case.
In short, there is a real risk that by claiming to “expose” rapists, Yaxley-Lennon could have enabled the defendants to walk free.
This is not difficult to understand, and nor is what happened next. A man who had been given a suspended sentence for contempt of court in 2017 proceeded to break the same laws again, faced a judge, pled guilty, and was sentenced to 13 months.
That is not the version of the story that you will read in the alt-right corners of Twitter or see plastered all over Fox News in the US. There, an alternative fiction rages: a free-speech crusader silenced by the government and imprisoned for daring to air views deemed distasteful by a politically correct establishment.
By some accounts Yaxley-Lennon was denied a lawyer, tried in secret, and convicted of a crime for which there is no legal precedent – all utterly untrue.
Its a narrative neatly summarised by professional contrarian Katie Hopkins, who was invited on Fox News this week to share her opinion that “there is a real sense now that we are against our own government, that the establishment is working against us, and in order to cleanse voices it doesnt like, it will put them inside for as long as it needs to, to shut them up”.
Some of this is just culture clash.
America has different reporting restrictions to the UK (and a more dogmatic attachment to “free speech” even when it comes to matters of justice), while the court system is considered to be a branch of government in a way that isnt really comparable in Britain. Attempts to explain why it was not “the government” that imprisoned Yaxley-Lennon get lost in translation across the Atlantic.
But worryingly, the case has been misunderstood – deliberately or otherwise – here too.
Yaxley-Lennons defence has now been taken up by Gerard Batten, leader of Ukip, a party that has 18 MEPs and 125 local councillors.
Ukip peer Lord Pearson even wrote to the home secretary threatening legal action if Yaxley-Lennon was harmed in prison – a bizarre and utterly senseless intervention, that again fuels distrust for government and blurs the line between politics and the law.
Britains legal and political institutions are world-renowned. We have a history of rationality and respect for due process. Perhaps we have been taking all this for granted. We laughed last year when EDL activists mistook a picture of Brighton Pavilion – built in 1787 for King George IV – for a mega mosque at the Labour party conference.
But the US-powered paranoia over the past week has demonstrated – as aggressively as the EDL protesters at Downing Street – that this is under threat. Blame social media, blame the rapid pace of societal change, blame the election of a US President who tweets his own fictional, caps-locked version of reality to 52m followers, but something is changing – and we should be concerned.
This isnt really about Yaxley-Lennon, or the trials he disrupted, or the victims of sexual abuse and child rape who might have seen their only chance of justice snatched away by a bigoted egomaniac. Its about how a straightforward story got exploited and exaggerated by a country with completely different cultural norms, then imported back into the British political mainstream.
As post-Brexit Britain looks beyond Europe to its future, this sensationalism is one American product we should be very wary of importing.