So, you don’t want to call “Tommy Robinson” a thug…

This morning the Today programme on Radio 4 covered the story of Gerard Batten, the new leader of UKIP, hiring Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the former leader of the English Defence League, anti-Muslim agitator and self-styled independent journalist, as an advisor on prison reform and “rape gangs”. The programme featured an interview with Nigel Farage, the former leader who has opposed this appointment and Batten’s more general “drift to the far right” and preoccupation with Islam, and to their credit it was fairly robust; he was accused of moving the party in that direction himself with advertising campaigns which stirred hostility to immigration. However, they went rather soft on Robinson himself.

The presenter noted that Robinson had some personal experience of one of those areas, namely prison, where he spent several months earlier this year on a contempt of court charge which has since been quashed, and noted that many people would object because they regard him as a thug. Stephen Yaxley-Lennon in fact has multiple criminal convictions which have not been quashed; these include an assault for which he was sentenced to 12 months, numerous convictions for assaults during his time as EDL leader, as well as breaking court orders that had been issued as a result of these convictions. He has also served time for using a false passport and mortgage fraud. This information is all quite readily available online.

The tone of these remarks, that his being a thug is just some people’s view, reflects the BBC’s preoccupation with ‘balance’, the idea that there are two sides to every story, especially where an individual has a degree of popularity; if Yaxley-Lennon was just a football hooligan rather than one who is also a political agitator with a few hundred fans, they might not have been so hesitant about stating facts. They are too fearful of being accused of ‘bias’ which might include being the focus of an orchestrated letter- writing campaign. They have acknowledged the dangers of false balance on scientific matters such as man-made climate change but the dogma that you can’t be brazenly biased against a political figure (as opposed to implicitly, which we see fairly commonly in their coverage of anything to do with the Labour party) still holds.

Perhaps it would have been unacceptable to just call him a thug. But it’s not a sign of political bias to give details of his criminal convictions and to at least raise the issue of his lack of any expertise in prison reform (there are many better qualified individuals, including ex-convicts) and the rape gang issue - his contribution there was to endanger a trial, which is why he was imprisoned as it could have cost the public a lot of money, delayed other trials and resulted in victims having to testify and be cross-examined again. If UKIP are to be treated as a respectable political party, decisions such as these deserve as much scrutiny as they would in the Labour or Conservative party.

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