Why Tommy Robinson is going to prison

Far-right activist sentenced to nine months for contempt of court over filming of criminal defendants in 2018

Tommy Robinson
Tommy Robinson has had a number of run-ins with police
(Image credit: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

Far-right activist Tommy Robinson has been sentenced to nine months for contempt of court over a video he broadcast on social media which featured defendants in a criminal trial.

The English Defence League (EDL) founder, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, was handed the sentence on Thursday morning, after being found guilty of contempt of court at the Old Bailey last Friday, the Evening Standard reports.

After a deduction is made for time served, the sentence will amount to 19 weeks of which he will only serve half before being released.

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The court ruled that Robinson was in “contempt in three respects when he filmed men accused of the sexual exploitation of young girls and live-streamed the footage on Facebook, in breach of a reporting ban outside Leeds Crown Court in May 2018”, the paper adds. The footage was viewed more than three million times before his arrest.

Explaining the reasoning behind the verdict on Tuesday, judge Dame Victoria Sharp said Robinson had encouraged “vigilante action” by live-streaming defendants of a criminal trial and risked causing the trial to collapse, which could have allowed wrongdoers to go free, Sky News reports.

Robinson arrived for his sentencing at the Old Bailey on Thursday morning wearing a T-shirt which read “Convicted of journalism” on the front and “Britain = North Korea” on the back. He was greeted by a crowd of supporters with whom he posed for selfies before entering the court.

Ahead of his sentencing, Robinson publicly asked US President Donald Trump to grant him asylum, telling right-wing conspiracy theory channel InfoWars on Monday: “I feel like I'm two days away from being sentenced to death in the UK.

“I beg Donald Trump, I beg the American government, to look at my case. I need evacuation from this country because dark forces are at work. This is a direct appeal on behalf of my family - we love the United States, I have no future here.”

In the US, The Sun reports, contempt of court is “generally not considered to be a criminal offence”, adding: “Due to the First Amendment, [a] media outlet cannot be found in contempt of court.”

Robinson was jailed for 13 months in May 2018 after being found in contempt of court on the day of the broadcast. He served just two months in jail before being freed after the original finding was overturned by the Court of Appeal in August 2018.

Here’s a look at Robinson’s case:

What did Robinson do?

The Contempt of Court Act 1981 lays down strict limitations on what can be reported in the press regarding active criminal proceedings. These rules are intended to prevent outside influences from affecting jurors, ensuring that the defendant has a fair trial based only on the evidence put before the court.

Robinson was already serving a suspended sentence for contempt of court concerning a 2017 case in Canterbury when he was arrested by police while live-streaming on Facebook outside a grooming trial in Leeds.

In the broadcast, played to the court during his trial in May 2018, Robinson “got into a shouting match with several men who appeared to be defendants in the case”, Buzzfeed reports. He also read out the names and charges against the men, some of them inaccurate.

“No one could possibly conclude that it would be anything other than highly prejudicial to the defendants in the trial,” said Judge Geoffrey Marson QC, presiding.

The self-described journalist pleaded guilty to contempt of court and breach of a suspended sentence, receiving a sentence of 13 months in prison.

“In a rare move, he was arrested, charged and sentenced within five hours,” says the Daily Mirror.

Why was there no coverage of Robinson’s trial until after the verdict?

In far-right circles, the lack of media coverage was widely touted as further evidence of a conspiracy to silence Robinson.

However, the real explanation lies in the same legislation that landed Robinson in the dock - contempt of court.

A temporary order had been imposed by the court banning media coverage of Robinson’s trial and conviction while the Leeds grooming trial was ongoing, in order to prevent further publicisation of Robinson’s prejudicial broadcast, the Hull Daily Mail reports.

“If the jurors in my present trial get to know of this video, I will no doubt be faced with an application to discharge the jury,” Marson told Robinson at last May’s trial.

“If I have to do that it will mean a re-trial, costing hundreds and hundreds and thousands of pounds.”

However, such orders can be challenged by reporters - as journalists from Leeds Live successfully did.

With the temporary order lifted, the UK press was free to report on Robinson’s case.

But legal blogger The Secret Barrister says the reporting restrictions inadvertently enabled a false narrative to flourish online.

The enforced absence of “accurate reporting by responsible journalists” meant “there was no factual counterpoint to the selective and inaccurate details of Yaxley-Lennon’s situation that were inevitably flooded through social media” by his supporters, the blogger argues.

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