11/06/2013 06:30 BST | Updated 10/08/2013 06:12 BST

Was the 'Today' Programme Right to Interview Tommy Robinson?


One of the tests a captain of a UK nuclear submarine has to undertake before launching a retaliation payload is to check if the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 is being broadcast. If not, odds are London has been hit. It is the establishment. This morning, the leader of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, appeared and was interviewed by Sarah Montague.

Was the Today programme right to have Tommy on? On balance, yes. But I would have liked some tougher questioning.

When writing about Islamists back in 2010 as part of the debates about 'Preventing Violent Extremism', I argued that silencing extremists would not lessen the appeal - in fact, it often has the opposite affect. Extremists of all shades like to play the free speech martyr, and stripping this frequently exposes vacuity. It would be hypocrictal not to hold the same position for the EDL. We shouldn't be afraid of their views, and the EDL will certainly struggle now to claim that their views are being suppressed.

We tend to forget that a liberal society has a responsibility - yes, responsibility - to ensure that opposing and distasteful views are heard. John Stuart Mill, to whom we often look to at such moments, would have said Tommy Robinson should appear for our benefit as much as his:

"The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that of robbing the human race ... it robs those who dissent from the opinion still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth. If wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by the collision with error."

Of course, there is a difference between allowing someone the freedom to speak - Tommy Robinson already has that - and the state broadcaster giving him a microphone and amplifier. On my reading, Tommy appeared was on, not because he represents an unheard, angry working class voice as he likes to claim, but because he is the leader of a fairly small, but highly visible movement that has been in the news a lot lately.

The EDL has been demonstrating across the country in significant numbers over the last few weeks, and also stands accused by some of having inspired (or even be directly responsible for) the recent increase in Islamophobic attacks. On Monday, six men were convicted for having tried to detonate explosives at an EDL rally. With all that, I don't think it unusual that the BBC would have him in. Not everyone on the Today programme is there to 'represent'.

There is a but, of course. Having people like Tommy Robinson on means an extra responsibility to interrogate. This is where the Today programme should have been tougher. Three things in particular should have been pushed.

First, Tommy Robinson often talks about how big the EDL is. All those Facebook fans and people marching on the street is what gives him impact and some form of legitimacy and he'll happily use it. Yet whenever any of these members says or does anything nasty or thuggish - and lots of them do, frequently - he distances himself, claiming he cannot control who joins the group on line, or who turns up at demos. In part, this is partly because of the nature of group - essentially a loose, uncontrollable collective. But he cannot have his cake and eat it: he must take some responsibility for the actions of those he claims to lead.

Second, he needs to be pushed on whether the actions of his members - the inflamatory rhetoric, the violent threats, the highty offensive chants - create the environment which makes anti-Islamic hate crime more likely.

Finally, it must be made absolutely plain why he is on air: because he is the leader of a smallish group that has been making the news a lot lately and we wish to interrogate him: not because he speaks for unheard majority.