Tommy Robinson is in jail.
That’s a fact that is beyond dispute.
Now, there are facts and opinions that are up for debate.
Is Tommy Robinson a good person? Is what he did wise? Should it be illegal?
Let’s back up.
In May 2017, Robinson was arrested, charged, and tried for “contempt of court.” He received an eighteen-month suspended sentence, which if violated would result in a three-month sentence plus the penalty for whatever crime violated the suspended sentence.
What was he doing?
Filming four Muslim men accused of raping a minor who mistakenly wandered into their restaurant. The footage in question was obtained outside the courthouse, around the time the defendants were due to leave for the day. It’s worth pointing out that these men were found guilty, and sentenced to between 7 and 14 years in jail.
Fast-forward a year.
Tommy Robinson is once again outside a courthouse, “livestreaming a Facebook video . . . Inside that building, several defendants were on trial for allegedly being part of a so-called ‘grooming gang’ — a group of men, almost all Muslim, who systematically rape non-Muslim children, in some cases hundreds of them, over a period of years or decades.”
He is again arrested for “contempt of court,” and within the space of an afternoon is brought to trial, pleads guilty, and is sentenced to 13 months in prison.
Now, contempt of court is an interesting offense. In Robinson’s case, it refers to publishing information or statements that might prejudice the outcome of a trial. The legal justification is that if the media reports on trials in progress, they might influence the jury or judge and affect the outcome.
It’s not hard to imagine that, giving the subject matter and Robinson’s flair for provocation, that he had some strong, unpopular opinions that were likely prejudicial.
Adding another wrinkle is the fact that UK judges have the option to issue further gag orders on the media, to prevent reporting completely. The judge that sentenced Robinson ordered the media not to report on the sentencing out of fear that reporting on Robinson would prejudice the case on which he was trying to report.
If that seems like it might be a problem to you, hang on for a minute.
At this point, I have to point out that some of this problem may be staged.
Please spare me all the ill-informed crap about Tommy Robinson. He knew exactly what he was doing & what the consequences would be for doing it. Contempt of court is a very serious thing during active proceedings, for what should be very obvious reasons – even to knuckleheads.
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) May 28, 2018
And maybe it was, to some extent. Robinson pled guilty, and within the day a ton of people who are tangentially connected to him had made videos on YouTube, though it took a few days for British media outlets to get the gag order lifted.
So, our first possible scenario is that Robinson knows what he is doing and is falling on his sword to draw attention to a particular law.
The second scenario is that Robinson didn’t think he was doing anything wrong and was railroaded with questionable justification by an unjust law.
Either way, we now have to look at the law itself.
I’m not a legal expert of any kind, so I can’t tell you for sure if the law is legal, but I’m not afraid to philosophize and try to figure out if the law is just and effective.
We have the same problem the Brits do when it comes to trials here in America. Our belief is that in order to keep trials fair, the only information that should be considered by the judge and jury is that presented by the prosecutors and the defense. However, there is no imposition on the media to not report. Instead, the jury is told not to research the case, and if the case is likely to have a lot of media attention, the jury will be sequestered so that they cannot research the trial on their own.
The end result is that the American criminal legal system can be quite transparent. In big cases reporters in the room often livetweet the events that transpire, giving the public minute-by-minute updates.
In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, reporting seems to be restricted in general, though subjectively. What kinds of ideas are likely to “prejudice” a trial, and who gets to decide? It’s far too subjective, and I don’t like giving that kind of discretion over to the government. The burden should be on the government to prove that prejudice is taking place.
But, this goes even further. Judges can order the press to suppress all information on a given event. This is where things move from questionable to potentially tyrannical.
Think about it. In one day, the British government arrested, tried, sentenced, and imprisoned a man . . . and then told the media not to report on it. Had his friends not been made aware, he might as well just have disappeared.
Is the British government using this tool responsibly, or are they using it to suppress controversy, cover-up their actions, and protect a selected few powerful people?
Well, this isn’t the first time media gags have been in the spotlight.
According to The Independent, 333 gags were issued to the newspaper between 2007 and 2011. They were gagged regarding the following subjects:
- A footballer alleging blackmail after a group-sex session in a hotel was captured on mobile phone video
- At least four child abusers protecting their new identities
- A company accused of pollution
- A pedophile who gained an injunction prohibiting reporting of his rehabilitation trips
- Tens of Premier League players who are family men in public but who are in reality promiscuous cheats
- A “leading actor” who slept with Helen Wood (only she can be named)
Can it really be said that the government has legitimate interests in keeping these stories suppressed? Don’t people have a right to know that some of these things are going on? And, for others, doesn’t it look quite a bit like politicians protecting their friends from embarrassment?
Is this a tool that is actually serving its stated purpose: protecting the integrity of trials?
Or, is it being used as a servant of nepotism, and as a tool to prevent people from holding the state accountable for its actions?
Tommy Robinson is in jail.
But, should he be?