When British far-right activist Tommy Robinson was released from prison Wednesday after a judge ordered a retrial in his high-profile case, he had nothing to say to the journalists waiting outside.
“Why would I have anything to say to you?” the 35-year-old told the reporters assembled to cover the appeal of his conviction for contempt of court, which had seen him imprisoned for more than two months. “You’ve lost the faith of the British public.”
He’s got no such beef with American media though, at least when it comes to the right-wing variety. On Thursday, Robinson gave his first and only interview since his release to Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
It was a nod to the growing American support base that has sprung up behind the British agitator, casting him as a free speech martyr unfairly jailed for criticizing Islam. Robinson’s choice of Fox News over a British outlet reflects his apparent determination to build on that momentum, which has turned this obscure figure from the margins of British politics into something of a cause célèbre for the global alt-right.
Since the anti-Islam campaigner was jailed in May for jeopardizing a sex crimes trial that was underway in the English city of Leeds, he’s become an unlikely figurehead for American right-wingers and free-speech activists. Now Robinson’s out of jail, for the time being, and he’s looking to capitalize on his newfound status.
His cause has been taken up and amplified by right-wing U.S. provocateurs such as Steve Bannon, Alex Jones, Ann Coulter and Mike Cernovich. And as the #FreeTommy movement has grown on social media, tweets of support have come from the likes of Donald Trump Jr. and Roseanne Barr; one analysis of #FreeTommy tweets found that more than a third came from the United States.
The international campaign behind Robinson — whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon — has framed him as a free speech champion who has been jailed for criticizing Islam. But that’s a narrative that’s at odds with the facts of his case.
While Robinson, a longstanding agitator on Britain’s far-right, is a prominent critic of Islam, he was jailed in May for contempt of court for jeopardizing a trial. Acting as a “citizen journalist” covering the case, a sex crimes trial involving Muslim defendants, he broke reporting restrictions by filming people involved in the trial and broadcasting the video to social media, where it was viewed more than 250,000 times before being taken down. His conviction in May was the second time he had been found guilty of the offense; he’d been spared jail the previous year on the basis that he didn’t reoffend.
On Wednesday, the judge in Robinson’s appeal ordered a retrial over his alleged offending in Leeds, saying the ruling had been flawed, but upheld his earlier conviction.
But the particulars of Robinson’s legal troubles got lost in translation when he appeared on Carlson’s show to discuss his case, billed as a “British conservative activist.”
Introducing his guest, Carlson said the U.K. had “become a mere shadow of the nation that gave us freedom of speech, freedom of the press, a host of other rights that we take for granted.”
He then went on to give an inaccurate account of the reasons for Robinson’s imprisonment: “You went to prison in a supposedly free country for expressing supposedly unfashionable opinions in public.”
Robinson did little to correct his host during the nearly eight-minute interview, during which he likened his stint in prison to being detained at Guantanamo Bay.
British anti-racism group Hope not Hate said Robinson’s Fox News appearance was a reflection of the increasing interconnectedness of the international far-right, the strands of which were vocally mobilizing behind the British extremist. Robinson’s cause has also been taken up by Europe’s youth-focused Identitarian movement, as well as the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders.
“There’s a profound attempt underway to shift how we view someone who, in any other circumstances, should and would be rightly be abhorred,” said Nick Ryan, a spokesman for the group.
He said Robinson, who has a number of criminal convictions, including for violence, was “being lionized as a hero, labelled as some sort of citizen journalist or commentator by U.S. right-wing and alternative media networks.” He said Robinson’s work showed little of the hallmarks of journalism.
“Instead of revealing or exposing anything — matters the courts and law enforcement are already dealing with — he’s simply imperiling the legal process. Does that serve justice? Does that help imprison offenders?”
American support for Robinson has extended beyond the realms of social media. Last month, the U.S.’s Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, raised his case with Britain’s ambassador to the U.S., reportedly as a result of lobbying by figures connected to the right-wing website Breitbart.
In his interview with Carlson, Robinson thanked Brownback, along with other key American supporters that have mobilized behind him, such as neocon think tank the Middle East Foundation, which has funded rallies in London in his support. The date for his retrial is yet to be set.
Cover image: Supporters of English Defence League (EDL) founder Tommy Robinson demonstrate in Whitehall, London, Britain, June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Simon Dawson