Tommy Robinson’s rally showed one thing: He doesn’t care about free speech

When two thousand people turned out yesterday to support the far-right media personality’s big show against a State/BBC conspiracy to destroy him he talked about his wedding, his campaign against muslims and much more – but actual threats to free speech? Not so much.

If Tommy really cared about protecting Britain from a shutting down of the right to say what you want there was actually a fantastic opportunity to do so. In fact there were two, one of which is being campaigned against by the very journalists who he insists are trying to shut him down (meanwhile his supporters physically ejected reporters from the event).

In the first instance, the National Union of Journalists has been campaigning on the importance of journalism in the public interest (you may remember this has been a mainstay of Tommy’s spiel ever since he got arrested for contempt of court and potentially prejudicing the Huddersfield grooming trials). It’s a big case, in which journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney were arrested over their documentary about the 1994 Loughinisland massacre in Northern Ireland, No Stone Unturned.

While the State has little reason to bother defending paedophile rings (and didn’t – 20 of the Huddersfield men were eventually jailed), it actually has a real rationale to want Mcaffrey and Birney suppressed. Northern Ireland continues to be volatile, it’s a thorn in relations with the EU, and part of the British national mythos is that its actions in the region were justifiable. No Stone Unturned bursts that narrative, and as a result the government has taken action to arrest the journalists responsible even though it had no actual crime to charge them with.

Tommy hasn’t, as far as a search online can tell, mentioned Loughinisland in his entire life. As a self-described journalist specialising in free speech, it could be reasonably expected that he would have it on his radar and that it would perhaps feature when he gathered his troops to fight the good fight for justice. After all, this is the sort of repressive activity that can get practiced against anyone who genuinely threatens the status quo. But no. Instead there was a great deal of on-stage whining about how he himself was being silenced and martyred while a crowd watched a 20ft-high screen of him speaking, entirely unmolested by any State forces.

The second case is even more concerning, and in fact could affect Tommy himself. The Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act contains three clauses which have given even the most liberal of journalists pause – they potentially make it illegal to click on “terrorist propaganda.”

It’s not hard to see why Tommy might overlook this one. Most of the news reports about it have gone with a picture of a shrouded muslim woman or a jihadi to go with their stories, and repression against muslims has never been high on his list of battles to fight over human rights. If anything it’s mildly inconvenient for him to talk about as it rather undermines the image he likes to paint of a liberal Establishment letting the foreign hordes get away with murder.

But if he (or indeed his many contemporary whingers on the far right) had any interest at all in the operation of free speech then it should concern him, on a number of levels. First and most straightforwad is the line that the NUJ is taking – how is anyone supposed to research terrorism without going on terrorist websites to see what they’re doing and saying? It’s essentially giving government a monopoly on researching, debating and responding to terror threats – something Tommy has repeatedly railed against.

The second issue however is of concern if you really truly are a threat to business as usual. The government is taking to itself the right to decide what a terrorist group is, and then make it illegal to even read what that group has to say. This could affect any group they choose, at any time. Freedom Press has been on the receiving end of such tactics multiple times over the course of its existence due to its anarchist perspectives on the nature of capital and the State, and any legal measure which helps the government to repress on this level is of extreme concern.

But Tommy sails onwards, unconcerned because this law isn’t actually targeted at him. He doesn’t threaten the State’s objectives, in fact if anything he helps them. His “movement” provides a useful patsy when required, a vision for the cameras of “real right-wing extremism” to make actions the State takes seem reasonable. When Sajid Javid calls in the navy to deal with a handful of people on a dinghy in the Channel, Tommy’s always there to play the bootboy to his right.

Tommy likes to scream and stamp his feet about repression and his fight for free speech. He publishes photos of his face taped over. But it’s not him the State wishes to repress, and he knows it. Which is why when legislation repressing free speech is published he doesn’t bother mentioning it. And why he has to break well-known laws designed to avoid collapsing court cases if he wants to get arrested.

He is not the only one to have merely pulled on the mask of free speech so he can play the victim of course, there is a long, long history of the far-right doing so. But to see Tommy on a giant stage pretending he is protecting the British tradition of speaking your mind to power, while taking attention away from real, dangerous measures being enforced at this very moment to repress such traditions, is a shameful hypocrisy.

Bill Edwards


Pic: A Free Tommy demo in Denmark at the height of the global far-right campaign. By Kristoffer Trolle.