Why the Post covered Tommy Robinson's visit to Preston

People gathered to hear Tommy Robinson speak in PrestonPeople gathered to hear Tommy Robinson speak in Preston
People gathered to hear Tommy Robinson speak in Preston
Lancashire Post has come in for criticism this week over our coverage of a campaign event staged in Preston by far right candidate Tommy Robinson. Mike Hill responds to the complaints

In the small hours of July 14, 2017 Tommy Robinson took to Facebook from the passenger seat of a darkened car to inform his followers he was heading off to confront a troll.

At the time he was notorious for turning up unannounced on the doorstep of individuals who had abused him on social media with a cameraman in tow to record what happened.

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Several hours, and 200 miles later, a grey Range Rover Evoque pulled into the car park of the Lancashire Post offices in Fulwood at 9.30am dropping off Robinson at his destination.

Crowd in Ashton Park to hear Tommy Robinson speakCrowd in Ashton Park to hear Tommy Robinson speak
Crowd in Ashton Park to hear Tommy Robinson speak

The former leader of the English Defence League was unhappy that this newspaper had described him as a ‘far right extremist’ and wanted to discuss his complaint with the news editor.

Twenty minutes later his visit was over and Robinson was on his way after making his point and hearing ours.

We didn’t report this incident in the newspaper or online. People make complaints to the newsroom all of the time. It wasn’t a story then and it isn’t one now.

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This week the Lancashire Post has come in for considerable criticism for its coverage of Robinson’s most recent visit to Preston as part of his electoral campaign for European Parliament.

Crowd in Burnley at a Tommy Robinson campaign eventCrowd in Burnley at a Tommy Robinson campaign event
Crowd in Burnley at a Tommy Robinson campaign event

This criticism fell into two distinct categories. Those who believe the Post should not have covered his campaign event at all and those who disputed the accuracy and tone of the article.

We first became aware of Robinson’s intention to speak in Preston several weeks ago but nothing was a confirmed and so we chose not to publicise it.

But the decision to send a journalist along to the event was a much easier one to make.

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Whatever our views of Robinson’s beliefs or policies we could not pretend a public event in a public place was not taking place.

After all the job of our journalists is to inform readers about life in their community, good and bad. And this was a man standing for public office.

In a world where everyone with a smartphone shouts ‘fake news’ at the first lines of a story they don’t like – regardless of its accuracy – we would be failing in our duty if we shut our eyes and ignored the things we don’t like. Covering the goings-on in our city does not ‘normalise’ or ‘legitimise’ those happenings. It condones the story as much as an article about graffiti condones vandalism.

Consider a simple question, where would readers turn to for answers if they saw a police presence at Ashton Park and wanted to know why there was a gathering of people and what was going on? We wouldn’t say “sorry readers, we know but we’re not telling you.”

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The fact there was a police presence, on and off the park, suggested police commanders believed there was a need for them to be there. Had any problems occurred then it would have been our role to report on that.

Someone did throw a brick at Robinson’s big screen and was arrested and issued with a caution. Other than that no trouble materialised in Preston (or his other ports of call in Lancashire for that matter aside from one arrest in Burnley).This is a fact and not endorsement.

What was of significance was Robinson’s claim to have drawn the largest crowd of his campaign in Preston.

This ought to be valuable information for readers of this newspaper, to discover something in his rhetoric chimes within a small section of the community in which we live and work.

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While the Post was criticised for ‘giving a platform to the far right’ it is important to understand what that means. Is the mere act of reporting on Robinson’s presence ‘giving him a platform?’

In which case we stand accused alongside media in those other towns across the North West where his election campaign called.

It may be grand to describe it as such, but this was a political rally and yet the article does not showcase his policies at all and we did not interview him. This was no accident.

We have come under fire for not providing reaction from those who stand against Robinson and his views. Our reporter spoke to several people in attendance who oppose his values and not one person would speak on the record. Only one would offer a quote on the condition of anonymity. There was, of course, a protest event, but this took place across the city and it would be hard for those not on Ashton Park to react to something they had not witnessed.

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But did we get everything right on Monday night? In a word, no. Many of those complaining were concerned we had overestimated the numbers of people present on Ashton Park.And we should have made it clear that it was an estimate. We reported the crowd numbered 600, many of those complaining said it was more like 100. Lancashire Police put the figure at 200.

This is important as the figure is an indication of Robinson’s popularity every bit as relevant as his claim to have pulled his largest crowd of his campaign in Preston.

We also upset people with the suggestion that it must have been ‘galling’ for the organisers of the protest in the city centre to have drawn 40 people.

It may well have been galling to them - it may well not have been - but that was an opinion and in a factual news report there’s no place for opinion and we apologise for that aberration.

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On Sunday we will know just how successful Robinson’s bid for public office has been when the returning officer reveals who will represent us in the European Parliament.We are covering the count in Manchester to bring you all of the details on our website and in Monday’s Post. As you should expect.