Euan McColm: Don’t ask whether Tommy Robinson’s a racist thug

It is quite the thing to attack the BBC, these days. Everyone’s at it.

Your political party didn’t win the election? BBC’s fault, that. You lost a referendum? Only happened because of the bloody Beeb.

Tommy Robinson was co-founder of the far-right English Defence League. Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty

Tommy Robinson was co-founder of the far-right English Defence League. Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty

And this is not just sport for the usual suspects, the keyboard warriors and demo-attending ideologues. Now, senior politicians across the spectrum are enthusiastic BBC-bashers, with many of them echoing Donald Trump’s “fake news” mantra when it comes to reports they find uncomfortable.

The corporation is frequently unfairly maligned by grubby little politicians who know that the BBC is – for the reason that any counter-attack will be twisted into an example of partisanship – unlikely to hit back.

The fact that the same sort of criticism of the BBC – it distorts our position, it supports our opponents – comes from all points of the political compass should reassure us that things are not as whingeing politicians might have us believe. If the journalists of the BBC are upsetting right-wingers and lefties, unionists and nationalists, Leavers and Remainers, then they are doing what we should expect of them.

But… There’s always a but. This doesn’t mean the BBC shouldn’t be subject to the closest scrutiny. We pay for the thing, after all, so we are entitled to ask – at all times – whether it is living up to the standards we might expect.

On its coverage of Tommy Robinson – the former leader of the far-right English Defence League turned self-styled crusading journalist – the Beeb has questions to answer.

“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 an online promo for BBC’s Newsnight on Thursday.

Beneath the question was a photograph of Robinson (real name Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon) with a piece of tape over his mouth. He’s been silenced, don’t you see?

Robinson was recently freed from prison on bail after challenging a sentence for contempt of court handed down after broadcasts he made during the trial of a number of men accused of grooming and raping teenage girls.

To his supporters, he is a heroic figure, “exposing” the facts about these gangs and the fact that many of the men involved are of Pakistani heritage. In fact, these gangs were exposed by those who made complaints and the police who (eventually, after years of failing to do so) investigated and then laid charges.

Robinson’s only contribution to these bleak proceedings has been to use them to increase his own profile. And a lot of people are buying into his tawdry little game.

More than half a million people signed a petition calling for Robinson’s release after he was jailed for contempt.

Now, of course, all of this is newsworthy. Of course, the BBC and other news organisations should be reporting on this dangerous man.

But nobody should be legitimising him or any other extremist.

That, I’m afraid, is what that BBC question does. By asking us to consider whether Robinson might be nothing more than a man raising concerns others ignore, the Beeb plays into his hands.

In order to dodge the charge that they are racists, the racist supporters of Robinson make precisely that claim: this thuggish little man, with convictions for assault and fraud, is nothing more than a crusader for truth.

Critics of the BBC’s handling of the Robinson story were quick to accuse the corporation of cynicism. This was cheap, populist stuff; clickbait as serious news.

In response to criticism, the BBC released a defensive statement saying that it was not the job of its journalists to pretend things aren’t happening when they can see that they are.

This is true. But neither is it the job of BBC journalists to pretend Robinson is anything other than a rabble-rousing lout. It is not their job to give his views a platform.

The BBC is now so relentlessly under attack from all political parties that I wonder whether it has lost perspective. Have constant accusations of bias had the effect that the BBC now prefers to give everyone a say – no matter how evidently dishonest or dangerous their views might be?

It is essential that, during its reporting, the BBC provides political balance but I fear the definition of what that actually is has become distorted.

Yes, if one political party makes an allegation against another then a right of reply is necessary but balance does not mean that every statement made by politicians should be given equal weight. It is, after all, the job of journalists not simply to report the news but to get to the truth of matters.

Too often, it seems that BBC news programmes shy away from that part of their role.

It’s so much easier just to let the opposing sides speak and invite the audience to make up its mind, no matter how patently nonsensical one or more of the statements being made is.

I’m a great fan of the BBC and I think it’s frequently at the receiving end of completely unjustified criticism. But on this issue, my patience is growing thin.

The BBC’s treatment of the Tommy Robinson story is in keeping with this let-the-audience-figure-it-out approach.

Quickly, we have moved from the facts about Robinson – he is a violent criminal who thought nothing of risking the collapse of rape trials while promoting his “crusade” against grooming gangs – to a place where we are now to consider whether he is a legitimate political figure.

There is no need for us to do so.

Ah, but free speech! What about free speech? Robinson’s supporters say any refusal to cover his activities is an attack on that most precious right.

It is not. Tommy Robinson’s right to free speech does not include the right for him to be treated by the BBC as anything other than the thug he is.