For the most part, conspiracy theorists are not worth debating. But, in company with some quite distinguished legal commentators and journalists, I spent a measurable part of last weekend reassuring overseas friends that the UK was not suddenly groaning under the jackboot of a regime busy locking up its critics after secret trials. My friends, of course, had been reading excited and often wildly exaggerated accounts of the jailing of activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, who goes under the name Tommy Robinson, for persistent contempt of court.
What alarmed my - mainly American - friends was the discovery that in England and Wales judges have the right, indeed the duty, summarily to bang up individuals who are prejudicing the conduct of a criminal trial. Even more friends claimed incredulity at the fact that the supposedly feisty British press obeys reporting restrictions. 'Were all the articles in the British media pulled down "voluntarily"?' one over-excited commenter demanded to know, adding: 'There is no way to know for sure!'
Gazette readers will not need me to rehash my reply. Luckily I was in good company. After reporting restrictions were lifted (at the request of the despised ‘mainstream media’) more widely read authorities than I were able to refute some of the wilder allegations. Blogger and author the Secret Barrister offers an excellent lay person’s guide to what went on here. Politics website Guido Fawkes managed it in fewer words, pithily concluding ‘Tommy Robinson is an idiot’.
Whether that honestly held opinion will change any minds is doubtful. Of course there was an agenda to the outrage, no doubt shared by the 'free speech martyr' himself. In some circles it is axiomatic that the entire British establishment - including habitual advocates for open justice - has been nobbled by sinister forces. (Here, it probably doesn't help that the Secret Barrister is, er, secret.)
But while it is tempting to make fun of this nonsense, sometimes it is useful to see ourselves through other eyes. In some parts of our interconnected world England and Wales' restrictions on court reporting do appear bizarre. Likewise the imposition of reporting restrictions pending the outcome of related proceedings. As insiders, whether lawyers or conventionally trained journalists, our instinct is to defend these restrictions in the interests of justice. This is easy in the case of a character like Robinson, but we could ask whether we could be quite so ready to stand up for the secret jailing of someone whose cause was more sympathetic - an environmental activist, perhaps.
There are no easy answers here. But with the principles of open justice coming under new scrutiny with the advent of online courts, perhaps it is time to look again at, say, the Contempt of Court Act 1981 and how it applies in the age of citizen journalists and social-media connected jurors.
Defending the jailing of a racist crank does not take most of us out of our comfort zones. Perhaps it should.