Is there any more surreal a depiction of the strange times in which we are living, than the sight of the actress and comedian Roseanne Barr tweeting the actor James Woods to ask him to get involved in the case of Tommy Robinson, arrested and imprisoned two days ago for filming himself accosting defendants in a grooming gang case outside Leeds Crown Court?
On the one hand, this sort of celebrity activism is to be applauded. With their large social media followings, celebrities such as Roseanne and James Woods are able to direct public scrutiny to issues that maybe are not getting the media attention they deserve.
On the other hand, the recent case of Alfie Evans showed all too alarmingly how quickly an already fraught situation can escalate when celebrities in the United States start tweeting about political and social matters in the United Kingdom without first gaining a true understanding of the situation. People whipped up into a frenzy by misinformation and wild accusations, turning up at Alder Hey hospital, threatening staff and intimidating other patients, were surely not what those celebrities had in mind when they first got involved.
The current Tommy Robinson situation is a political and social powder-keg on the brink of explosion. UK media, constrained by reporting restrictions put in place by the judge, are unable to report on anything but the bare details of Mr Robinson’s arrest. Tens of thousands of people, though, have already watched his arrest on Twitter, as he was livestreaming it at the time it took place. Mr Robinson’s fans are demanding to know what is going on, and thousands of them have already marched down Whitehall in protest, demanding his release. At the time of writing, a petition calling for Theresa May to free Mr Robinson, had gathered over 207,000 signatures.
A few media outlets in the United States and Canada are more than happy to leap in and try to fill the gap in information by reporting the ‘facts’ as they know them to their hundreds of thousands of followers. The problem being that most of the ‘facts’ being presented are nothing more than wild conjecture, based primarily on what appears to be complete lack of public knowledge about what reporting restrictions mean, and why they are imposed.
The basic facts, which are not in dispute, are that Tommy Robinson was outside Leeds Crown Court, livestreaming himself doorstepping defendants in a grooming gang case. As there were reporting restrictions in place on the case in question, his actions were illegal. He was arrested, bundled into a police van and taken away to an immediate hearing where it is being suggested that he was sentenced to 13 months in prison. The reason for his immediate hearing and sentencing was because he was already serving a suspended 3 month sentence for a similar offence – the sentence had been suspended for 18 months on the basis that he did not repeat the offence, so by breaking the terms of that suspension he was liable to immediate imprisonment.
What seems to have really inflamed matters is that the judge who heard Mr Robinson’s case, subsequently imposed reporting restrictions on his case, to remain in place until the conclusion of the underlying cases on which he had been reporting. An initial online newspaper report in the Mirror, about Mr Robinson’s arrest, was promptly taken down, prompting howls of outrage from those who had already watched the arrest on Twitter and who are now convinced that the establishment is trying to silence Mr Robinson. The gloating of far-left activists, expressing the wish that he will be repeatedly raped or murdered while in prison, has only enraged and further alarmed his fans, with many of them tweeting that he has effectively been sentenced to death.
The facts that do not appear to be widely known, are these. Firstly, where reporting restrictions are put in place, this is done so at the request of the prosecution – and the restrictions are usually in place only for the duration of the trial. Once the verdicts are returned, the restrictions are lifted and the media are free to report on the case. The issue with the case on which Mr Robinson was reporting, is that the verdicts have not yet been returned – hence the restrictions are still in place.
Nazir Afzal, the prosecutor in the Rochdale grooming gang trials, explained in a couple of hasty tweets that the Rochdale case almost collapsed because of a far-right communication during the trial, which the defendants claimed had prejudiced their jury. The reason for reporting restrictions being in place is to prevent the defendants, if convicted, from having any recourse to a claim that their jury was unfairly prejudiced. So by deliberately flouting the reporting restrictions, Mr Robinson, despite what may have been good intentions, was doing nothing other than harming the chances of a successful prosecution.
Secondly, for all those arguing that Mr Robinson wasn’t in breach of reporting restrictions because he wasn’t inside the court – the restrictions prevent the reporting of any information about the case, from either inside or outside. The fact that Mr Robinson was outside the court is irrelevant – by livestreaming his report to the many thousands of followers of his website, he was breaking the law.
Thirdly, to all those peddling conspiracy theories that the mainstream media is trying to cover up reports of grooming gang trials and that Mr Robinson is the only ‘honest’ journalist prepared to report on such cases – it’s quite the opposite. The mainstream media are bound to follow the law and are simply respecting the reporting restrictions – Mr Robinson cannot call himself a journalist if he is not prepared to follow the same rule of law that binds other journalists.
The one very valid question that is repeatedly being asked on Twitter is – why is it that when a celebrity such as Rolf Harris, Stuart Hall or Max Clifford faces charges of paedophilia, the media are encouraged to report widely on the matter “in order to encourage more victims to come forward”, yet when it’s a grooming gang case, there always seems to be a media blackout? I do not have an answer to this – hopefully once the verdicts are returned in the Leeds cases and the reporting restrictions are lifted, somebody in the media will address this question with the Crown Prosecution Service.
The timing of all of this could not be worse. A bank holiday weekend when people have more than enough time on their hands to fire off angry tweets and to turn up at mass protests in London and Leeds, when the courts are closed so nothing can be done to expedite the verdicts in the grooming gang cases and so allow the lifting of the reporting restrictions. A few limited reports of Mr Robinson’s arrest have now appeared in the UK press – presumably allowed on the basis that they don’t disclose any information that is not already publicly available, and published with the intention of calming down conspiracy theorists, but to very little effect.
Jack Posobiec – described by Wikipedia as an “alt-right internet troll and conspiracy theorist” has leapt on the situation and has been repeatedly tweeting support for Robinson to his 326,000 followers, even suggesting that Donald Trump should offer him asylum. How long, I wonder, before Trump responds?
It’s not just commentators in the United States and Canada who are watching, either. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands has fired off multiple tweets about Mr Robinson’s arrest, and in Australia, senator Pauline Hanson, with 37,000 followers, has got in on the action with this tweet:
I wonder – with the world’s media and celebrities watching, what state will this situation have reached by the time courts resume on Tuesday? Is it too much to hope that everybody will just take a breath, calm down and spend the weekend with their families, trusting that many journalists in the UK are just as desperate to report on this story as everybody else is to read about it?