This isn't, and never has been, about "free speech"—whatever the right sayby Sam Moore / August 2, 2018 / Leave a comment
The offence of contempt of court to which Tommy Robinson plead guilty, and today’s Court of Appeal judgement in his favour, has been discussed through the lens of certain rights.
To begin with, there were some—mostly those on the far-right—making it about Robinson’s right to free speech. Now, with his contempt of court judgement being quashed, it is about the right to a fair trial. Robinson’s solicitors have certainly framed it in this way, releasing a statement that says “the rule of law and right to a fair hearing are fundamental to every individual and this ruling is an example of the safeguards in our system.”
That’s what this appeal is really about. Judicial procedure, and the right to a fair hearing. The judgement from the appeal Court of Appeal says as much, with its conclusion declaring that the court moved at a speed that was “inappropriate.”
The conclusions of the appeal mention nothing about Robinson’s right to free speech, instead stating that “the haste with which the contempt proceedings were conducted led to an inability of counsel to mitigate fully on the appellant’s behalf.”
But, looking at the way the right are responding to this judgement paints an entirely different picture.
This isn’t about Robinson
Right-wing commentator and self-described “rebel commander” Ezra Levant filmed and uploaded a short video outside of the appeal court earlier this morning. In the video, there is no mention of the actual charge of contempt of court, or the procedural basis of Robinson’s partially-successful appeal.
Instead, the focused is placed on Robinson, with Levant concluding “the big headline: Tommy Robinson won.”
The right are twisting an issue of legal procedure until it is unrecognisable, then replacing it with an alternative story—one which is about a battle over political correctness and free speech. In this narrative, the suggestion is that Robinson was imprisoned for what he said, rather than for the impact that it may have had on the trial that he was commenting.
Rather than any question of law or legal procedure, this puts Tommy Robinson at the centre of the story, allowing his supporters to act as if free speech itself was on trial—even though this was never called into question.
This twisting of the facts, what some might even call “fake news,” manages to handily avoid any contact with reality.
Even before Robinson’s release, this twisting of the facts was being employed by the right to set him up as a martyr.
Throughout his supporters’ protests of his arrest, an image recurred on banners, and in coverage of the story: Robinson with a gag around his mouth, silenced, presumably by the state, or the court, or anyone who disagreed with his particular brand of far-right politics.
Discussing the arrest on the radio, Steven Bannon—the ex-Trump advisor and portrait of Miltonian corruption—argued that “a lot of people say that the law is way too restrictive. It’s just free speech.”
Bannon called for Robinson’s release, and, eventually got his wish. But this release is nothing to do with whether or not Robinson is guilty. In fact, Robinson plead guilty to the original charge, and will be tried again for contempt.
If this were really about institutional attempts to silence Robinson, the video of him outside the court would have been taken down, but all it takes is a YouTube of search of “Tommy Robinson Leeds court,” and the 75 minute video is the first option that appears.
The right, however, continue in their refusal of allowing the truth to get in the way of a good story.
The rise of the right
That this trial has been so much-discussed is itself worrying. Robinson also violated a suspended sentence he received for similar behaviour last year.
Last year’s decision wasn’t treated as a crisis of free speech, and the fact that this latest decision is generating this kind of treatment is an illustration of how noticeable the rise of the right has become in Europe and America.
That Raheem Kassam was invited on Radio 4’s Today program to defend Robinson is a sign of just how far his supporters have come.
Nothing here points to Robinson’s free speech being challenged or violated in any way. Instead, it’s an illustration of the thing that the right seem to fear the most: the consequences of the free speech that they value so highly.
This court ruling was a procedural one, about a lack of clarity in a case of contempt of court, and the right shouldn’t be able to get away with continually twisting the truth in order to fit their narrative.