Last month, ‘Newsnight’, a weekday BBC current affairs programme, faced much criticism online over a segment due to be aired that evening on 35-year-old Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon, better known to the world as Tommy Robinson, co-founder of the English Defence League and a cause célèbre of the far right globally. Alongside the provision of yet another platform to him, it was the way the story was promoted that troubled observers the most. Ahead of the programme, ‘Newsnight’ ran images of Mr. Robinson staring determinedly into the camera, his mouth covered with duct tape. “Is Tommy Robinson a man raising concerns that others ignore, or a far-right figure exploiting the victims of sexual abuse for his own ends?” asked the programme on its social media promotional.
This image of Mr. Robinson muzzled was the very one that he and his supporters had been seeking to project, despite the fact that as Miqdaad Versi, a spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain, noted on Twitter that in the last three months he has been mentioned on broadcast over 100 times. Far from him being shunned by the media, he has been interviewed on prominent news shows in recent years, as well as being an invitee at the Oxford Union. “Is Tommy Robinson being ignored and silenced by the media asks the media who won’t stop reporting on him,” tweeted Amna Saleem, a Scottish-Pakistani writer rather fittingly. The preposterousness of the suggestion that he is being silenced is also evidenced by his social media profile: clips of him speaking, often looking furtively into the camera as if to emphasise the supposed silencing, attract millions of viewers.
The notion that the far right is being muzzled despite the inordinate media attention it has garnered — from print, television, radio and digital — is one that it has managed to project with great success, feeding into the wider image the far right has attempted to propagate of it being an anti-establishment, revolutionary force. It also appears to be something that many of its proponents ardently believe. “We are being gagged,” a supporter of Mr. Robinson, wearing a t-shirt with the logo “#Free Speech #Free Tommy”, told the Canadian media website The Rebel Media outside a court recently. Hundreds of his supporters gathered outside the Old Bailey last month for a hearing over allegations of contempt of court that Mr. Robinson is facing over his filming of suspects in a criminal trial involving “grooming gangs”. While his supporters have insisted he is a “martyr” to the British cause, and the only one to speak out, others have rightly pointed out that he has simply exploited the case of grooming gangs to further his toxic, Islamophobic world view, exacerbating the situation and taking the attention away from the victims and the debate on real practicable ways in which grooming gangs could be prevented from harming more people in the future.
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He is far from the only figure on the right in Britain to present himself as a “brave soldier” of free speech, and the “oppressed” — as among the only ones willing to take on the “dangerous liberals” supposedly trying to clamp down on free speech and impose their world view to the determinant of the marginalised majority. Katie Hopkins, an ultra-right campaigner, proclaimed herself the “Jesus of the outspoken”. In May, a “Day for Freedom” protest took place on London’s Parliament Square that attracted leading figures on the right. In April, Mark Meechan, a right-wing comedian, sought to portray a fine of £800 by a court in the U.K. for teaching a dog to do a Nazi salute for a YouTube video in terms of the curtailment of free speech.
The same contention has also been propagated by sections of the right more broadly. In an article last year, Niall Ferguson, the right-wing British historian of empire, insisted that the “biggest threat to free speech” came from the left. Last year, when academics and students protested against Oxford University’s support for the “ethics and empire” project that sought to create a list of the rights and wrongs of the empire, publications such as the Daily Mail accused them of bullying and attempting to silence Nigel Biggar, the professor behind the initiative. Last year, the Daily Telegraph ran an incendiary story accusing a young black student of “forcing” the University of Cambridge to replace white authors with black authors and only retracted the factually incorrect story after huge public outrage and a torrent of abuse directed at the student herself.
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It has also manifested itself in other ways. Last year Britain’s Universities Minister gave priority to a requirement that universities be required to guarantee free speech or face fines and potential de-registration in a consultation that was set to take place, pointing to “examples of censorship”. This again appeared to be an acknowledgement of an argument propagated by those on the right that “snowflake” students — too easy to take offence — were somehow stifling voices on the right through no-platforming initiatives that sought to protest the space given to them to voice offensive perspectives. There have been a handful of cases where students have pushed for particularly controversial speakers not to be allowed to speak on campus, yet the right managed to put the issue at the top of the government’s agenda, despite the many challenges facing Britain’s university sector.
The mainstreaming of this perspective has been toxic and debilitating on public life in the U.K. and beyond. A fear of being perceived to be closed to the perspectives of the right — which has been labelled “balance” — has led to a willingness by media outlets to offer voices even on issues where scientific consensus leaves little doubt. Earlier this year, the BBC faced much criticism over the space it provided to climate change deniers, until a briefing note sent to the staff in September pointed to the danger of a “false balance”. “You do not need a ‘denier’ to balance the debate,” the organisation was forced to clarify to its staff in a reference to man-made climate change.
Meanwhile, the far right has continued to rise steadily, spurred on by burgeoning acceptance of the issues raised by them that would once have been unthinkable, including by the media. There are over 100 live terror investigations related to the far-right as of October, while it emerged that MI5 is to take the lead in dealing with right-wing terrorism amid rising concern about its reach. Last week at least five men were arrested in connection with a video that showed the burning of an effigy of London’s Grenfell Tower. The blaze at the tower, home to largely ethnic minority residents, in June 2017 killed 72 people.
The usurpation of the free speech debate by the far right is, of course, not confined to Britain. It has become an essential part of the playbook of the movement across the world, while Mr. Robinson himself is held up by right-wing figures across the world as a poster-boy. The unwillingness of the media in Britain and beyond to call out those efforts for what they are will only continue to bolster that effort. The ability of the media to confront the far right, without unconsciously or otherwise adopting its rules of engagement, and its positioning of debates, is likely to be one of its biggest challenges going forward.