How Tommy Robinson Exploited Fear over Facts to Gain Influence

A lesson in mob rule.

By Lionheart Photography [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, known by the pseudonym Tommy Robinson, has been in the news (and in prison) for most of the past year for what he and his supporters claim is a free speech concern. He claimed to have been fighting for justice that the state was denying to the victims of child sex abuse in Huddersfield, a town in the North of England.

But now that we know the full story of what he was campaigning about, it’s clear that this wasn’t about free speech or justice at all. Robinson’s actions could have prevented justice being done, and yet even knowing this, people still love him and claim he is a political prisoner. Why don’t his supporters want to hear the truth?

I suppose the obvious answer is because they’re his supporters, duh. But there’s something interesting going on that fuels their belief in Robinson’s infallibility. When asked about why they think their hero is correct, and the justice system, police and community support workers are not, they parrot the same lie that’s been debunked a thousand times over. They don’t care about the truth. What do they care about then?

While he comes across as an uneducated thug, Yaxley-Lennon is actually a genius of media manipulation. His roguish exterior is a part of his charm offensive. He has successfully played on the fears of communities about immigration levels in their towns, and directed their concerns into anger and an identity of the oppressed white man.

We need to look at the facts. The facts of the original case, the facts in the case against Yaxley-Lennon, and the facts of his strategy for turning people against their own communities.

The Case

Twenty men were on trial for various sexual offences against fifteen girls. The case was examined in a number of linked trials, meaning that reporting restrictions were doubly important in this instance. If information regarding one of the trials had gotten out, it could have prejudiced the others. This is a very serious matter: if a jury in one of these trials had seen information that was not to be reported, the whole case could have collapsed, wasting hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money and allowing rapists to be released back into society with no penalty.

The below summary, from The Secret Barrister, explains the legal complexities of Yaxley-Lennon’s wrongdoing in accessible language.

The victims were targeted because they were vulnerable and it was believed the authorities would not take them seriously. Sadly, for both the victims, and for justice and the truth, this belief was confirmed. These girls were all from poor families, with involvement from social services. Many had been in care. Their social class, and the fact they had been in the care system, meant that police didn’t believe them and social services were indifferent to their plight.

These offences took place in Huddersfield between 2004 and 2011, but the girls and their families had been reporting these crimes throughout this ordeal — and they were only picked up in the last few years. Similar cases had been discovered in other UK towns, always targeting vulnerable girls, and perpetrated by men of Asian heritage. The fact that these girls were ignored, and that there was a perception the perpetrators were not apprehended due to their race, led to the frustrations that emboldened Yaxley-Lennon.

Robinson’s Ruckus

Yaxley-Lennon was convicted twice during the proceedings for contempt of court, which resulted in jail time. His campaigners claimed he was being silenced by a state that didn’t want to address the issue of “Muslim paedophiles”, when he just wanted to draw attention to the plight of the victims. But we have already established that drawing attention to the trials could have jeopardised the process and let down the very victims he was supposedly campaigning for.

He was first convicted in May 2017 at Canterbury Crown Court, after breaching clear and repeated warnings that it was illegal to film in court buildings. He was given a suspended sentence which was still in force when he broke the law for a second time at Leeds Crown Court in September 2017, leading to a custodial sentence in addition to the original tariff when he was sentenced in May this year.

That conviction was then quashed in August and a retrial ordered, with Yaxley-Lennon out on bail. His case has now been referred to the attorney-general, who will decide whether to try the case in the High Court or to drop the charges. This news broke a few days after the 20 Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) suspects were found guilty and sentenced. Thankfully their trials were not disrupted by Yaxley-Lennon’s antics and they each received sentences of between 5 and 18 years.

While Yaxley-Lennon’s legal troubles were occurring in parallel to the original trials, they caught the attention of right-wing supporters in Britain and America. Under the banner of Free Speech, and by making erroneous comparisons between the English and American legal systems, they made the (incorrect) argument that the authorities were silencing Robinson, and had locked him up without following due process. This just added fuel to the blazing racist fire.

Ironically, because professional journalists adhered to the reporting restrictions imposed on the original CSE case, and on Yaxley-Lennon’s trials, his were the only version of events we had to go on. Without factual reporting on this case, there was no challenge to what he was saying, which no doubt helped him to bolster his support. As far as the public was concerned, the state was covering up the abuse of young white girls by Muslim men. In reality, the state imposed a reporting embargo in order to secure convictions for those guilty men.

Civil Unrest

Using the name Tommy Robinson, Yaxley-Lennon founded the English Defence League (EDL), a far-right organisation that targets Muslims in particular. The EDL held rallies in towns with a high immigrant population (technically they still hold rallies, but their last one in Manchester was attended by about 20 protesters, vastly outnumbered by the police), and generally stirred up racist sentiment and anti-Muslim hatred.

Via Dan Hett on Twitter.

This case, and the others in English towns with large Asian populations, were exploited by Robinson and his supporters, galvanising opinion in places with widespread unemployment and social problems. These are the places that the younger generation has deserted, in pursuit of finding their fortune elsewhere. With the promise of cheap housing and opportunities that the white youth were not interested in, immigrant families moved to these towns.

Like many other places and people besieged by problems, a scapegoat was quickly found in the visible ethnic minority populations. Rumours and suspicion were rife, fuelled by the right-wing media and opportunist politicians. This unease had been growing for some years before there was news of the Rochdale scandal, the first one of these cases to become public. The pattern was the same: a group of Asian men sexually abusing vulnerable English girls — with the authorities shirking their responsibility to protect these girls and the wider public.

When this news broke, followed by a string of similar cases across the country, Robinson’s mob became louder and gained more support. The fact that the authorities hadn’t done their jobs properly led to claims that these crimes weren’t investigated due to “political correctness” or fears of inflaming racial tensions.

However, the reasons behind the failure to act ran deeper than that. We know that social class played a major role. These victims were from the lowest echelons of society, frequently in trouble with the law and involved in the care system. They were part of a larger subset of young people who are forgotten by society. Because of the perception of them being low-level criminals, “slags”, unreliable and prone to telling lies, they were disbelieved and dismissed. The abusers knew that nobody would care about these girls, and society proved them right.

“Political correctness” wasn’t the reason these crimes were not prosecuted and prevented, it was an institutional denial of CSE right across society. Scandals involving children’s homes, sports teams, the Catholic Church, British and American celebrities, and child sex tourism in the Far East were all swept under the carpet until the sheer volume became so large that the carpet gave way at the seams.

Crimes going back decades came bursting out, in so great a number that we had to pay attention. Finally justice was done — for some of the victims and criminals. There are probably many more that we do not know about. The majority of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are white men. Those girls targeted by Asian grooming gangs were the victims of organised criminal activity that manifested itself in a different way to what had previously been encountered when perpetrated by whites.

In spite of knowing the facts and wider context, the damage is difficult to undo. These crimes are among the most serious violations possible and forgiveness does not beckon. Many people in these communities are still angry, not just about these terrible crimes, but because nothing has changed in their communities. These are still run-down places with little being done to change things. Non-white residents are still the target of misplaced blame for many.

Although justice has been served, there are no winners. Lives have been permanently altered, CSE still goes on, racism runs high and the spectre of fascism looms not far away. Those who worship Tommy Robinson and his ilk have a lot to be upset about, but they are aiming at the wrong target. Because they have absorbed their feelings of persecution into their identity as members of the forgotten “white working class”, they are impervious to facts.

If Tommy Robinson tells them he’s fighting for justice, they rally behind him. He says that no-one is doing anything, or reporting on these horrific crimes, and they believe him. He’s become a figurehead for the disenfranchised, and he offers them a solution. His closest supporters are hardcore racists, but he has drawn the admiration of many who feel that nobody is listening to their concerns.

As history has shown us many times, the far-right are always on hand to offer a listening ear. With a strong white identity, disappointment about their lives, and a leader who understands them, Robinson’s supporters don’t want to hear the establishment message. They’ve been let down too many times, and Tommy’s never let them down.

Even though Robinson is very, very wrong on the legal aspects (and his general worldview), he has got his public image exactly right. The cold and indifferent authorities mean nothing to Robinson’s supporters. Now that they have finally processed these crimes, years after they should have, the people have lost faith in the system. We can provide all the facts we want, but we can’t match Robinson’s charisma or the sense that he is “on their side”.

Robinson is very persuasive, and he makes people feel listened to and cared for. He’s demonstrated his willingness to stand up and fight, and to those who’ve been neglected by the state, he’s all they have left. No matter what the authorities say, people do not trust them. Why should anyone believe them when they say Robinson’s actions are harmful and making things worse? For those who feel they have no voice, the truth is irrelevant. Tommy’s their man.