Former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson is at the centre of a new row between the London School of Economics and the BBC after turning up unannounced with a cameraman who claimed to be making a documentary for the broadcaster at a lecture on human rights in the Muslim world.
Robinson’s presence at last Wednesday’s talk by Karima Bennoune, an Algerian-American professor in international law, was criticised by the head of the LSE’s human rights centre, who said the incident had “risked causing public disruption around a highly controversial figure at an event aimed at opposing violence and extremism”.
Chetan Bhatt, the director of LSE’s Centre for the Study of Human Rights, said he had consented to a request from a film crew he understood was working for the BBC to attend the lecture as part of a documentary on Maajid Nawaz, the chairman of the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank which choreographed Robinson’s surprise departure from the EDL earlier this month.
“I agreed on condition that they would focus the filming on Nawaz and not obstruct the audience or stewards. At no point was I or any of my colleagues informed that Tommy Robinson was part of this documentary and would be in attendance,” said Bhatt.
Nawaz was in the United States throughout last week. But Jonathan Russell, Quilliam’s political liaison officer who did attend the lecture, said he understood Robinson’s attendance had been cleared with organisers by Coelus Media, the independent company behind the documentary.
“We’ve had no communication from LSE and no complaint. A member of the public attending a public event is no issue at all,” said Russell.
The BBC confirmed Coelus Media and Aaqil Ahmed, the corporation’s head of religion and ethics, had discussed a possible documentary about Nawaz and Robinson, the subject of another BBC programme on Monday charting his split with the EDL.
It said: “This project is in the very early stages of development by an independent production company, and there was never intention to mislead. If the programme is commissioned, any footage filmed at the LSE on 23 October will not be used.”
Coelus Media said it was talking to the BBC and was not prepared to comment.
The BBC was at odds with the LSE earlier this year when the university accused Panorama journalists of putting its students in danger by filming undercover during a study trip to North Korea.
Robinson, who took a seat at the back of the lecture theatre alongside Kevin Carroll, his cousin and EDL co-founder, said afterwards: “I’ve just come along to listen. I wanted to hear first hand what Muslim women are experiencing. It’s interesting to hear how much Muslims are suffering because I’ve always been focused on us.”
Bennoune is a former legal advisor to Amnesty International whose current book “Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here” tells the stories of ordinary people making a stand against Islamist fundamentalism.
“I didn’t know that he was there until afterwards and the EDL and the far right are utterly repugnant to me. I would prefer the story is about the people in my book because he has absolutely nothing to do with them whatsoever,” she said.
But Russell said Robinson deserved a chance to distance himself from his extremist past and had been encouraged by Quilliam to attend Bennoune’s lecture.
“He is on a journey and if he gets the time and space that he needs then his views will continue to moderate. It would have been nice to speak to Karima after the event to show how much her passionate speech had impacted Tommy’s thoughts.”
A version of this story was published by The Independent on 27 October, 2013.