Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The nonsense from Yaxley-Lennon supporters continues

There are good reasons to ask whether Britain needs more protections for freedom of speech similar to the First Amendment to the constitution of the USA.

The arrest and prison sentence for former BNP member, former co-founder of the English defence league and convicted fraudster  Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, who calls himself Tommy Robinson and pleaded guilty on two occasions to charges of contempt of court, is not one of them.

But it is an indication that we need to think further about how whether delaying the publication of information which is sub judice and might prejudice a trial can work in the age of the internet.

Most people in Britain, if they had paid any attention at all to Yaxley-Lennon's arrest, stopped doing so when it came out that he had pleaded guilty. However, to the hard right and to those who are very hostile to muslims, he is now a martyr and a hero - an outcome which I strongly suspect he deliberately got himself arrested to bring about.

And both in Britain and on the internet world wide, his supporters are sharing all sorts of nonsense.

Take this picture, taken by Martin Rickett in 2005, of vast crowds in Liverpool celebrating their local football team's performance in the Champion's league that year.

But according to various headbangers who have been circulating Rickett's picture on social media in the last week,

"The left want this picture taken down because it shows the whole of London calling for Tommy Robinson to be released so please don't retweet it."

Wrong city, wrong year, wrong subject.

And what's this "the left?"

You mean people like that well known left-wing Conservative MEP, free-marketer and Brexit supporter Dan Hannan, who made a valiant attempt in the Washington Examiner at


to explain to Conservatives in the USA that Yaxley-Lennon is not some kind of hero and what has happened to him is not an attack on free speech.

Certainly, most of the left in Britain do seem to think Yaxley-Lennon is, in the words of Guardian journalist Owen Jones - "no martyr to freedom of speech," possibly the only thing he and Dan have ever agreed about.

Adam Wagner, also in the Guardian, suggested that Yaxley-Lennon's case shows that alt-right tactics are in use here in the UK.

I previously quoted what I still regard as a good article on the "Secret Barrister" blog about the Yaxley-Lennon case: another perspective can be found on the "Law and Lawyers" blog here.

We have to think again about how to prevent juries from being prejudiced in a world where people tweeting from other countries can flood social media with allegations, and hence reporting restrictions may silence the truth while failing to prevent leaving conspiracy theorists (and worse) from sending their version of events around the world unchallenged.

That is basically what happened during the weekend when HH Judge Marson's temporary reporting restrictions on the sentence he gave Yaxley-Lennon were in place.

A few days later the judge dropped the restriction at the request of two mainstream media outlets (The Independent and LeedsLive), but by then the damage was done.

In the past judges have gone to great lengths to prevent juries being presented with things which might interfere with their ability to bring in an impartial verdict, including restrictions on reporting which would have been draconian in the extreme had they been permanent. This has worked in the past because professional journalists understood the system, appreciated that they were only being asked to delay publication until the juries had delivered their verdict and the information was no longer "sub judice" and went along with it.

In an environment where right or left-wing extremists and their followers on social media neither understand or care about the rules, this position is no longer tenable and we need to find new ways of ensuring that accused and victims alike can be assured that there will be a fair trial.

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