On Thursday, during a Today programme interview about Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, AKA "Tommy Robinson", Raheem Kassam was at pains to deny that he has anything to do with "far-right" politics. Kassam is former London editor of far-right news website Breitbart, and a "fellow" of the Middle East Forum – a weird US neo-con think-tank that has been bank-rolling the "Free Tommy" campaign, which apparently made him the perfect mid-morning guest for the BBC show.
Near the end of a fairly obliging interview, Kassam was asked, "Do you plan to use this case to build support for the far-right across Europe? We hear about Steve Bannon's plans for 'The Movement'" – referring to the pan-European political grouping of "populist, nationalist parties" that Trump's former chief strategist wants to create.
At this point you can see Kassam's eyes almost roll to the back of his head. "This is the BBC all over," he sighs, full of Trumpian "fake news" bluster. "The far-right! There’s nothing far-right about us… We have no truck with ethnic politics, we have no truck with racialist politics, we don't touch that stuff at all, it's not in our milieu."
Not in our milieu? That might have been news to Kevin Carroll, who has been Tommy Robinson's less charismatic right-hand man since the EDL days. Speaking at the most recent "Free Tommy" demonstration – which Kassam hosted – he suggested people "embrace" the label "far-right' and "help change the perception of it".
So I can't be accused of taking Carroll's words out of context, here's the relevant chunk of the speech verbatim:
"I just want to go back to [London Mayor] Sadiq Khan for a minute. [boos] He calls all of us here today far-right – extreme far-right members. Really?
"Standing up – if that means standing up and resisting the forced change of the British identity, you don’t resist this label. You embrace it and help change the perception of it.
"If the label extreme far-right means standing up against the wrong incarceration of people like Tommy Robinson without a fair trial, I am far-right. And all of you are far-right, going by that insane rationale. [cheers]
"If that same label means holding the PM to account for refusing to adhere to the democratic process, I embrace the label of far-right.
"If speaking out on the inept immigration system that allows fighting aged males to infiltrate our system, I embrace the label of far-right."
While Carroll does put a couple of how-very-dare-you disclaimers on there – "Really?" and "by that insane rationale" – needless to say, paranoid ranting about the "forced change of British identity" and "fighting aged males" coming over here is very much far-right rhetoric. It's a bit like saying, "If you're trying to insinuate that my weekly attendance of football matches makes me in some way a 'football fan', then, well, by that absurd logic, you can bloody well call me a football fan!"
It was a departure from the far-right script, which places a great deal of importance on maintaining "respectability" by denying any hint that their politics are beyond the pale. And so, when Carroll had finished, Raheem took to the mic:
"Thank you, Kevin Carroll! So here’s the thing, Kevin is going to put the media down here to the test with what he just said, because he’s given them the opportunity to be in context with his statements about far-right, or clip it [to] have him on the stage saying, 'I am far-right, I am extreme far-right.' So for the media here, this is your test and we are watching."
Yep, it sure would be awkward if a man with a history of far-right street organising repeating "I embrace the label far-right" were to look a bit like a man with a history of far-right street organising embracing the label "far-right". And if the groups like ethno-nationalists Generation Identity and the Islamophobic party For Britain were in attendance were to add to that impression, that would be doubly awkward – particularly as that impression would raise further questions about why the BBC deemed Kassam a suitable guest.
It will be interesting to see if Carroll is allowed to say anything at future "Tommy" events after departing so dramatically from the party line. In the meantime, remember: it would be truly absurd to suggest that far-right politics have anything to do with the group surrounding Stephen Yaxley-Lennon or his far-right backers.
It’s important not to let people like Kassam police how we describe their politics, but you don't even have to get into ultimately subjective labels to question how his Today interview was framed.
Kassam was introduced as "One of [Yaxley-Lennon's] biggest supporters… who was a senior advisor for Nigel Farage at UKIP. He's been helping raise money for 'Tommy Robinson' in the United States and spoke to me from Washington earlier this morning."
This is a very lazy way to summarise Kassam's vile CV, which spans from student-Tory, to right-wing think-tank wonk, to co-founder of the London branch of far-right news website Breitbart, which he recently left.
Radio isn't going to give a comprehensive biog to every guest, but what’s bizarre is that Today didn't mention the fact that Kassam is now a fellow of the Middle East Forum. MEF has spent a five-figure sum helping Yaxley-Lennon get out of jail, lending a hand in various ways. They helped bankroll his legal team; paid for the "Free Tommy" demos Kassam hosted, which descended into violence; funded Rep Paul Gosar – a controversial US congressman who said the riots in Charlottesville were organised by an "Obama sympathiser" to attend one of the demos – and leant on US State Department ambassador Sam Brownback to make representations on Yaxley-Lennon's behalf to the British ambassador in Washington.
MEF's defence of Yaxley-Lennon is part of "The Legal Project", which has in the past defended the Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders against what it calls "Islamist lawfare". In 2011, Wilders was acquitted of inciting hatred against Muslims after describing Islam as "fascist". MEF president Daniel Pipes was the originator of the myth that there were Muslim-only "no-go areas in Europe". In other words, Kassam's main connection to the Robinson case is that he is associated with a bunch of conspiracy theory-toting wing-nuts in America who are spending loads of money lobbying in Britain. Why would you call upon him as a talking head and not mention this – the most relevant biographical point?
In omitting that small detail, the host really had nowhere to turn when Kassam objected to the far-right label. Having batted that off, Kassam goes on to explain how he and Bannon will "build a legitimate, a serious organisation… that will help unite what we think of as patriotic, populist nationalist parties around the continent" – a grouping which will somehow "have no truck with ethnic politics".
Bannon himself has recently been to Budapest to speak at a conference hosted by Hungary’s right-wing Fidesz government, which asked questions such as, "Is the war for Europe's body and soul a winnable one?" and, "Will Europe become the new melting pot? Shall we, out of cultural guilt or simple calculation, sacrifice Christianity, freedom and our way of life? Or should we retreat to our fortress, defend ourselves and strengthen our values and cohesion within? Is the creation of the New European Man realistic through migration?" Mussolini, who Bannon is "fascinated" by, would have been hooking this shit into his veins.
Following his release from prison on bail this week, Yaxley-Lennon gave an interview to Tucker Carlson on Fox News, who thought that the story of a man who had one of two convictions for nearly collapsing a rape trial quashed shows that "the United Kingdom has become a mere shadow of the nation that gave us free speech, freedom of the press, a host of other rights that we take for granted, but probably should not take for granted. Nobody knows that better than Tommy Robinson…"
Carlson then allows the convicted fraudster to tell a sob story comparing his prison to "Guantanamo Bay", and asks, "I just want our viewers to understand why this happened to you in the first place. You went to prison in a supposedly free country for expressing unfashionable opinions in public. Did you hit anyone, did you steal anything, or did you say something the government didn’t like?" It’s not so much a soft-ball question as writing his PR lines for him. "TOMMY ROBINSON WAS JAILED FOR REPORTING ON MUSLIM RAPE GANGS" reads the caption on the bottom of the screen.
Writing about the US media in the build-up to Trump's nomination as Republican candidate, Matt Taibbi, political correspondent for Rolling Stone, noted that "Trump sold hate, violence, xenophobia, racism and ignorance, which oddly enough had long been permissible zones of exploration for American television entertainment. And the news media was becoming more indistinguishable from entertainment media." This meant that it was normal to run Trump speeches "all day long". Taibbi argues that by the time Trump had secured his nomination, "via the profits they made during his run… [the media outlets which ran his speeches] had been made accomplices in the whole affair". That same media is now beaming sycophantic interviews back to the UK via YouTube mirrors and embedded videos in news articles.
Fortunately in the UK, we have the BBC, with its commitment to a blunt idea of balance to protect us. Kassam's interview came the day after Radio 4’s World at One decided that Gerard Batten – UKIP's current leader, who has taken the party on an even further right-wing path – was the go-to guest to talk about how Yaxley-Lennon was a "political prisoner" who compares favourably to Nelson Mandela.
I'm not saying we should look away. This is a legitimate story. But the media needs to find a way to cover this stuff without being played by racist ideologues. The interview goes out, more unchallenged drivel, and again these ideas become an ever more humdrum part of the conversation.