"Tommy Robinson" is still a man who claims to crusade against rapists, but risked letting them off the hook by collapsing a rape trial with his crappy narcissistic "journalism".
That hasn't changed, but today the Court of Appeal quashed one of two convictions for contempt of court against Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, who goes by the pseudonym "Tommy Robinson" for the purposes of coming across as authentic to his fanbase. For now – and until his case is reheard – the appeal of thousands of angry placard-holders goes from a slogan to a reality: "Free Tommy Robinson".
The court threw out an appeal against a ruling of contempt in Canterbury. However, the court found that a second finding of contempt in Leeds – the one that landed Yaxley-Lennon in prison – couldn't stand as it followed a "fundamentally flawed process". That case will be re-heard at the Old Bailey.
It all started last year when the former EDL leader, then working for alt-right news website the Rebel Media, attempted to gatecrash a court room in Canterbury as evidence was still being given in the trial of a rape gang, intending to confront the defendants. Obviously, a racist vigilante barging in and shouting about "Muslim paedophiles" might ruin the delicate deliberations of a court, so the police escorted the defendants away, at which point Yaxley-Lennon started a live stream about how this was all part of a "cover up".
Some cover up – the gang was subsequently jailed for more than 50 years, a sentence that might not have been handed down if Yaxley-Lennon had been allowed to screw the trial up.
For this fiasco, Yaxley-Lennon was given a suspended sentence, with the judge warning him not to fanny about outside any courts again, or he'd be in serious trouble.
Sure enough, Yaxley-Lennon showed up at Leeds Crown Court and fannied about. Facebook livestream rolling outside another rape trial, he shouted at people turning up at the court. In his intrepid pursuit of the truth, which the Mainstream Media are too cowardly to expose, he read the details of the defendants from a local news website to his audience. He was aware of the law, without having understood what it was there for: "I have to be super careful, you see… they put me under a contempt of court charge, which could mean that I could face prison, or I'm on a suspended sentence because they don't want people reporting…"
As today's ruling put it, the judge at Leeds Crown Court – "understandably concerned that, should the jurors come across it, the trial might be derailed" – then brought Robinson into court and demanded he delete his video, which he did.
However, after that, the judge over-reached. "We recognise that the judge was placed in an invidious position because he was concerned about the integrity of the trial, which was almost at its end," notes the Court of Appeal. "The three trials, of which this was the second, were exceptionally difficult and sensitive." In his invidious position, the judge then threw Robinson in prison on the back of a series of errors which amounted to "much more than a technical failure".
"No particulars of the scope of the alleged contempt were ever formulated, let alone in writing, or put to the appellant;" there was "some muddle over the nature of the contempt being considered"; and Yaxley-Lennon's lawyers didn't have time to defend him properly. In short, he rushed it. And so: "the finding of contempt made in Leeds must be quashed".
It's not the end of the case. Robinson walks free today but will need to be re-trialled by a different judge. So, one conviction stands and another is quashed, for now, and that's enough for Robinson's far-right backers to claim victory. In the view of Raheem Kassam, one of his key supporters, "We fought the law and... we won."
The real winner in all of this, though, has to be Yaxley-Lennon. There's no doubt that the fact he nearly collapsed a rape trial just the one time will be taken as vindication of his heroic persona.
Just two years ago he was speaking to 200 people in the rain in Birmingham as he tried to launch a UK version of the anti-Islam "Pegida" movement that had seen thousands take to the streets in Germany. VICE covered it not because it really seemed to be a big deal, but because of our interest in the weird political fringes. It was a complete wash-out, and Robinson seemed to be pretty spent.
Two years later, having reinvented himself as a YouTube journalist, and after becoming a "free-speech" martyr for imperilling a court case, he's an international far-right superstar. A reporting restriction around his arrest fuelled online conspiracy theories about his status as some kind of "enemy of the state" political prisoner. Far-right political figures from around the world spoke at his rallies on Whitehall. Those rallies and his legal case were funded by the Middle East Forum, a bizarre US neo-con think-tank. A US ambassador made representations to the British government on his behalf, and Donald Trump's former strategy advisor, Steve Bannon, called him "the backbone of Britain". Bannon is starting a new right-wing foundation called "The Movement", and the Observer reports that, on his release, Yaxley-Lennon is likely to be given a key position.
Reporting on "Free Tommy" events, the extent of his cult of personality has become clear. Incarcerated, he became a cause célèbre around which the broader right – from UKIP to Generation Identity – could rally. In hindsight, it could be that a flustered judge racing through an unfair conviction was the best thing that ever happened to him.