Automated Messages From Tommy Robinson Cited in Finsbury Park Mosque Attack Trial

Note: In this post I discuss the way that prosecution evidence produced in a live trial has been presented in the media. However, no inference should be drawn about the significance or validity of that evidence while the trial is in progress.

The Independent‘s Lizzie Dearden reports from the trial of Darren Osborne, who is accused of having driven a van into worshippers leaving Finsbury Park Mosque in June:

The alleged Finsbury Park terror attacker read messages from Tommy Robinson and Jayda Fransen in the lead-up to the atrocity, a court has heard.

…Mr Osborne joined Twitter on 3 June and [allegedly] started following far-right accounts, including some linked to the far-right extremist group Britain First.

Prosecutor Jonathan Rees QC said he received a “direct message” from Ms Fransen, the group’s deputy leader, on the same day but did not detail its contents.

….The following week, he received an email from Mr Robinson, the former English Defence League leader, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the court heard.

…Discussing the Isis-linked terror attack that killed 22 people in Manchester the previous month, it said: “What Salman Abedi did is not the beginning, and it won’t be the end…”

…The second email from Mr Robinson to Mr Osborne came on 14 June and detailed the campaign for a woman whose rapists were not prosecuted, jurors were told.

“Dear Darren, you know about the terrible crimes committed against [name redacted] of Sunderland,”….

The formal “Dear Darren” in the second message from Robinson is an obvious sign that the messages were circulars rather than personal communications – and a bit of googling shows that at least some of the text from the first email corresponds to the blurb for a protest event that was held in Manchester in June. This is made clearer in a BBC News report:

…Mr Osborne later received an invitation to a demonstration from an account using the name Tommy Robinson calling for participants to “stand up and say no more” to extremism.

Mr Rees said: “No-one is suggesting it’s him [Mr Robinson] in person but obviously people who follow Tommy Robinson.”

Despite this, however, the initial impression in media reports and Tweets was that the prosecution was claiming that Robinson had been in personal contact with Osborne – an impression heightened by confusion between the alleged “direct message” from Fransen and the emails sent on behalf of Robinson.

At 3.15pm, Dearden wrote on Twitter that “To all those asking what medium Tommy Robinson sent messages to Darren Osborne by – the prosecution said they were direct but gave no further detail”; 25 minutes later, she explained that “The two messages from Mr Robinson were automated emails sent out to a mailing list of subscribers to The Rebel website, and had been screengrabbed by Mr Osborne” (or “allegedly screengrabbed”, it may have been wiser to have written). This was an hour after Fiona Hamilton of The Times similarly “clarified” a Tweet from the morning. @MetroUK, meanwhile, decided to delete a Tweet stating that “Finsbury Park ‘attacker got Twitter DMs from Tommy Robinson days before attack’.

The alleged message from Fransen is known only from the record of a notification; the content itself is lost. It seems to me that it may well have been an automated “Thank you for following” DM or similar.

Robinson has responded to the coverage by claiming that Dearden has put his “life in danger” by “fake news & misrepresentations”; he may have reason to complain, but the indignant pose is hard to take from a man who once told a crowd that “every single Muslim… got away with killing and maiming British citizens” on 7/7 (to give just one example of unreasonable rabble-rousing). The question of direct contact with the accused is distinct from the question of whether the accused was inspired by Robinson and, if so, whether Robinson is culpable due to “fake news & misrepresentations” of his own.

In the wake of the terror attack, Robinson posted Tweets alleging that the mosque was a hotbed of extremism, adding that “I’m not justifying it, I’ve said many times if government or police don’t sort these centres of hate they will create monsters as seen tonight.” As evidence, he drew attention to The Suicide Factory, a book about the mosque’s association with Abu Hamza. For some reason, though, he did not feel the need to clarify that the book had been published more than ten years ago, and that Abu Hamza had been expelled in 2003. The mosque closed down a few months later, and opened under new management in 2005. It is no longer a focus of controversies over extremism.

However, a couple of days before the attack, the mosque’s troubled past was referenced in the media in relation to the organiser of a protest held in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy – I discussed this here.