Stephen Yaxley-Lennon is being hailed as a martyr for free speech, but the true story is that he is being convicted for jeopardizing a just outcome in an ongoing court case.
On 25 May, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) was arrested for breach of the peace while live streaming outside an ongoing court case in Leeds. During the trial, he was charged with contempt of court to which he pled guilty and was given a thirteen month sentence.
It is this sentence that is now the focus of attention of this weekend’s demonstrations in London in support of Lennon and the uproar, especially by far-right activists, on social media under the hashtag #FreeTommyRobinson. It’s motivated by the belief that Lennon is being silenced for his reporting on the case as opposed to many mainstream outlets. An idea that was exacerbated by the reporting ban on his own case for four days.
Contempt of Court
But the uproar misses an important point. In his livestream, that reached at least 250,000 viewers, Lennon films the defendants, reads out their names and confronts them as they enter the court. This is what, the judge decided last week, constituted contempt of court. Simply put, Lennon jeopardized the fairness of the ongoing trial and making it less likely the victims will receive the justice they deserve.
Restrictions on reporting of ongoing trials is common practice in the UK. This is done to ensure that the jury, who are private individuals, are not influenced by outside information and media pressure and remain as unbiased as possible when they decide the outcome of the trial. Journalists, as well as anyone who might have information on the offences or people being tried, are therefore prohibited from publishing or speaking publicly about what they know until the trial is over. If this is breached, it can jeopardize the fairness of the trial and can give the defendant a possibility to claim mistrial.
The reporting ban on Lennon’s case was put in place out of concern that Lennon’s case would impact the trial he was first reporting on, but lifted within a few days.
The judge in Lennon’s case stated that his actions could cause the long-running trial to be retired, which would come at a cost of “hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pounds” of taxpayers money. It would also mean that the victims would have to give evidence about their traumatic experiences a second time.
Lennon’s solicitor later stated that his client was aware of the reporting restrictions, something that should not come as a surprise as he was convicted for the same offence only last year when he illegally filmed within a court building, for which he still carried the suspended sentence.
During the trial, Lennon pleaded guilty and his solicitor said that Lennon had “deep regret” for what he had done.