We're unfortunately getting used to terrible far-right weirdos hijacking the media conversation – be it indirectly, by shouting abuse at MPs and filming it on their phones, or by straight up being invited onto the air-waves for a chat. There's a grim sense of inevitability around this, given that the President of America is Donald Trump, and yet I sometimes wonder if journalists could try a bit harder to resist their extremist charms.
At the end of last week, Sky News released an interview with Caolan Robertson – formerly the camera operator for Stephen Yaxley Lennon, AKA Tommy Robinson – who used the opportunity to present himself as a reformed character, now in the sensible centre-ground, somewhere between a Rod Liddle Spectator column and a Breitbart podcast.
The appearance was for a new series, called Divided, with presenter Niall Paterson, who has waded into the culture-war and seems to think he's the man to bloody well sort it out, all from the comfort of a reclining chair. Problem is, it's all a bit Jez from Peep Show asking: "Aren't we supposed to be living in a multicultural democracy? And isn't that the point? You know, the Jews, the Muslims and the racists all living together happily side-by-side, doing and saying whatever the hell they like?"
If you're aware of Caolan Robertson at all, it's probably from his five minutes of viral fame following the Westminster Bridge attack, when – reporting from the scene for Rebel Media with Yaxley-Lennon – he went on a vitriolic rant, suggesting nobody should be surprised by terror attacks because "if you import a culture, you get a culture".
On Sky News, Robertson is played this segment of his diatribe. Back in the studio Robertson responds, "So cringe!"
There's some deft editing going on, as much of the clip would presumably have been too offensive to air. For example, in the original, he actually says: "Sky News has already reported that the man who did this was of Asian origin, which I don't think is very surprising to anybody. If you import a culture, you get a culture. This is a culture of violence, destruction and terrorism, and there should be no surprise when we see it on our streets." So, he calls all Asian people potential violent terrorists, and he's allowed to brush it off as "cringe".
But not to worry. That's the old Caolan. Or at least, that's the central conceit of the interview. The once callow youth has become wise with age; leaving his past as an outrageous upstart behind him, he now has a perspective worth hearing.
"How far away are you, would you say genuinely, from the young man in that video?" asks Paterson.
If we're talking in terms of time, the answer is less than two years, since the Westminster Bridge attach happened in March of 2017, a fact that is barely mentioned. But anyway: "Massive! Like, I actually can’t watch that video or anything else like it," says Caolan, the grizzled old lad, looking back with a wry giggle at the outrageous person he was all those months ago.
So eager is Caolan to shed the image of his past that he tells us MI5 has opened up a new unit to work against the threat of far-right terrorism, admitting, "The work I did might have contributed to that being opened."
To this Paterson responds: "The work which you would probably concede incited hatred, would have incited anger at the very least in some people on the basis of a false premise…" Probably concede? Anger at the very least? Mate, your guest just volunteered that he may have incited far-right terrorism – maybe it's time to drop the conciliatory tone?
But the desperate apologia continues: "What's the reason? Peer pressure?"
"I don't think it's peer pressure," says Caolan. "I think people think they’re right. I thought I was right."
"So what convinced you [that] you were wrong then?"
Which is the strangest question of all. Perhaps people can change fairly quickly, but Robertson has not. His most recent social media posts show that he’s "plotting" something with Laura Loomer, another attention seeking right-wing provocateur whose most recent stunt was to trespass on Democrat Nancy Pelosi’s lawn in order to protest against immigration.
Robertson has also been working with Lauren Southern, a Canadian far-right journalist. Her most recent "documentary" is Farmlands, based on the idea of a genocide against white farmers in South Africa – a fiction spread by millenarian race-war preppers. Southern's upcoming project – which Robertson has directed – is "Borderless", a look at the "mass migration crisis" with obvious "gates of Vienna" overtones and concerns that demographic change will stop Europe being European. In 2017, she made a film about the ethno-nationalist group Generation Identity that was virtually a promo, and this looks set to be cut from the same cloth.
Paterson says that the "groupthink" suggests Southern is "alt-light, if not alt-right, if not even far-right", to which Caolan responds that she too has changed. What a journey that have all been on.
The idea that all of this somehow represents a departure from working with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon is fanciful. In any case, Robertson never really disassociated himself from Yaxley-Lennon. When "Tommy" was imprisoned for risking collapsing the trial of a grooming gang, young Caolan acted as one of his public advocates. Just five months ago he was interviewed by conspiracy pedlar Alex Jones of Infowars about Yaxley-Lennon's situation.
As the interview continues, time begins to lose meaning, and the extent of Caolan's transformation becomes clear. "Does Islam – do Muslims, actually – pose an existential threat to Europe in your view?" he is asked. "No, of course not. I think the movement of people en masse poses a threat to nationalism, patriotism and sort of, er, homogeny in a lot of societies," he says.
So it's no longer just Islam, but migrants in general who are the "threat" – a statement that can't be racist because he explains that he would also be against Afghans migrating to Syria. Rather than challenging this for what it is, the interviewer asks, "So what do we do?"
The interview largely proceeds as if Robertson’s connection to Yaxley-Lennon happened a lifetime ago. "Would you concede that potentially, possibly, you were a racist, for at least part of your life?" asks Paterson, kindly. "I think I could have been described like that probably for a while," Caolan offers. Moments like this provide a sheen of toughness, but it's an absurdly soft question for someone who is willing to sit on your sofa and tell you that migration is an existential threat to patriotism and that a police anti-terror unit might have opened in part because of his output.
Paterson closes the interview suggesting that he is still looking at "a young radicalised man", something that had barely informed anything else about the interview – because if it had done, it likely wouldn't have happened in the first place, or at least not like this.
The motivation for Robertson to try to distance himself from his past presumably has something to do with the forthcoming release of the Borderless documentary and the desire to be taken seriously as a journalist. But it would be a shame if anyone treated that film with any credibility when it comes out. Unfortunately, with bafflingly poor interviews like this, it's becoming all the more likely.
Correction: This article previously stated that Caolan Robertson is 30 years old. He is in fact 23. We are happy to correct this.