Why there is only one winner from Sky News’ showdown with Tommy Robinson

PUBLISHED: 13:10 28 September 2018 | UPDATED: 13:28 28 September 2018

Tommy Robinson (centre) surrounded by supporters at City Thameslink railway station. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire

Tommy Robinson (centre) surrounded by supporters at City Thameslink railway station. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire

The broadcaster has questions to answer after its interview with the far-right figurehead, says MIC WRIGHT

‘Exclusive’ is a funny old word. For journalists, it can be almost magical – a talisman to show your rivals that you’ve won and they’ve lost. But the trouble is, it’s often more like sleight of hand than dramatic sorcery. The word gets slapped on stories that have been reported elsewhere and interviews that no one else actually wanted.

That certainly seems to be the case with Sky News’ breathlessly trailed conversation with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the controversy artist usually known as Tommy Robinson (a name he borrowed long ago from a football hooligan that he admired). Branded as ‘exclusive’, viewers were led to believe that Sky News had to fight to get Robinson into its studios, but as Rob Burley, the editor of the BBC’s live political programmes, noted: “This is an odd ‘exclusive’ because that makes it sound as if Tommy Robinson is somebody all broadcasters are definitely bidding and competing for. Whereas, for my programmes anyway, we’re just not.”

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In fact, Robinson had already been interviewed by BBC home affairs producer, Gaetan Portal, outside the Old Bailey on the same day. So Sky News’ studio conversation was far from exclusive, coming hours later. The difference was that while the BBC spoke to Robinson in the context of a news story – the activist, self-described journalist and former EDL leader was appearing at a hearing connected to an ongoing contempt of court case – Sky News invited him to their studios and heavily promoted the interview.

What’s more, this was not the kind of promotion you’d expect for an interview between a sober journalist and a man with several criminal convictions and a highly controversial public persona. Instead, Sky News opted to hype the interview like a heavyweight boxing clash. Mark White, Sky News’ home affairs correspondent, framed the meeting between the channel’s home editor, Jason Farrell, and Robinson as “[squaring] off in a head-to-head” before asking his Twitter followers “Who wins? You decide”. This was entertainment, not journalism.

The clash – let’s go all in with the boxing language, shall we? – certainly was pugilistic, with Farrell pushing back hard at Robinson’s assertions. But, as is so often the case in interviews with figures like Robinson, there was a lot more heat than light. Robinson has a schtick and will stick with it regardless. He knows his core audience and he also knows that nothing a reporter puts to him will change their opinion and that he might just recruit a few more people to his way of thinking with the aid of a mainstream megaphone. The social media reaction to the interview showed that to be the case – those who believe that Robinson is beyond contempt were angry that Sky News gave him a platform, while his supporters believed he did well in the face of a journalist set on shouting him down.

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Sophie Ridge, the presenter of Sky News’ flagship Sunday politics show Ridge On Sunday, argued on Twitter against the notion that the channel was wrong to give Robinson more airtime: “Some will argue Tommy Robinson shouldn’t be given a platform – but he already has a platform on social media.” Robinson quickly put that social media platform to use following the Sky News broadcast, releasing his own one hour 15 minute version (compared to the nine minutes 49 seconds posted on the Sky News YouTube channel) on Facebook. He wrote: “Watch this… it’s actually embarrassing how fake news these media scumbags are. The guy is absolutely clueless.”

In effect, not only did Sky News amplify Robinson’s arguments without effectively challenging them, it leant him their studio, giving him over an hour’s worth of material to share with his almost one million followers on Facebook. By presenting the interview as a gladiatorial contest, it entirely played into a narrative that Robinson and his followers propagate constantly: Robinson as David and the media as Goliath, a clash of two forces. In the edited interview broadcast and posted by Sky News, Farrell appears aggressive and flustered. Framing the interview as “squaring off” immediately put Robinson at an advantage he ‘won’ by getting into the ring to start with.

That Farrell tweeted a picture of himself beside Robinson with the comment, “both still standing after our interview – which gets intense in places”, is maddening. He didn’t get in the ring with Muhammad Ali in his prime or face-off against a world leader, he talked to a provocateur. After watching the Sky News broadcast, I went back to another interview of a right-wing populist with a large and sometimes violent following on the streets, which was broadcast 51 years ago: David Frost conducting Oswald Mosley’s first studio interview.

In contrast to Farrell’s flustering and open frustration, Frost was calm. He let Mosley incriminate himself, giving him time to speak, calming the audience and waiting until Mosley said, “I contend and can prove that I have never been an anti-Semite”. Then, and only then, did Frost read a telegram that Mosley had sent to the Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher in 1935. But Frost had an advantage then that Farrell and Sky News don’t have now – he was in control of the platform and the broadcast. Robinson can and does broadcast to his own audience with ease. Sky News simply gifted him some more viewers.

Farrell concluded the package with an attempt at justifying the decision to interview Robinson in the first place: “Should we be giving him a platform? 600,000 people signed a petition to release him. Only in interviews like this is he challenged.” That’s arrogance. The interview that it so glibly promoted like a boxing match ended up as little more than a scuffle outside a Wetherspoons on a Friday night, when both sides retreat to assure their friends that they could have decked the other bloke. It wasn’t journalism and it wasn’t even good entertainment.

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