Alt-Right Figures Pretending to Be Journalists Are Playing a Dangerous Game
"Tommy Robinson" reporting for Rebel Media at a Football Lads Alliance demonstration (Guy Corbishley / Alamy Stock Photo)
In a recent video report from an anti-refugee rally in Germany, former EDL organiser Tommy Robinson sweeps his hand in accusation at a group of journalists.
"Are you all mainstream media? You're all guilty!" he jabs, holding a Rebel Media-branded microphone to his mouth. "You are all guilty of what's happening in Europe. You have done this. You have hid the truth, and you label people unfairly, as fascists, as Nazis, as racists. You've all got blood on your hands."
The report was from Cottbus, a city in northeastern Germany of about 100,000 people, where 3,400 Syrian refugees have settled over the last two years. At the start of the year the city was rocked by violence between refugees and locals: on the 1st of January some German youths broke into a building housing refugees and beat up some Afghans. On the 17th, a Syrian slashed a local 16-year-old's face with a knife. Then a 15-year-old Syrian and his father were asked to leave the city after the teenager was involved in a knife attack outside a shopping centre. The city put a temporary ban on any new refugees and has become a focal point for protests from the far-right and left over refugees' rights.
The report by Robinson – real name, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – doesn't tell you very much about any of this. Instead, he walks around the press-pack at the protest like David Brent at an employee's birthday party, asking journalists if they will characterise the march as far-right and repeatedly saying "Unbelievable!" when they don't want to engage. At one point he asks a journalist whether it's really fair to report on Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) – an avowedly xenophobic party whose leaders warn of an "invasion of foreigners" – by referring to them as "far-right".
The report contains little actual information about any social issues connected to migration, real or imagined, and even less about the nature of the apparent German "fight back". Instead, it turns into a long whine about "the mainstream media" and how they report on protests. For his audience on the far-right Canadian YouTube channel Rebel Media, Tommy is hitting the nail on the head. "The only journalist I saw in the whole video was Tommy," approves one commenter.
It's bizarre that someone who used to lead far-right street protests is now getting kudos as the only "true" reporter for doing puff-pieces for similar events, but Robinson is not the only alt-right personality making his mark as a media figure rather than a political organiser. Tommy Robinson's attack-dog journalist schtick is him jumping on a bandwagon that was already rolling. For a number of alt-right figures, the toxic mixture of ego and bullshit that comprises much of the new-media landscape is the perfect environment in which to push their agenda.
Gamergate was the cultural moment from which a number of right-leaning commentators and journalists emerged. Figures like Milo Yiannopoulos, then of Breitbart News, gained an audience as misogynist video gamers linked up with mens right's activists and anonymous trolls to harass women working in the video games industry.
In the following years, many of those in the Gamergate crowd got involved in the alt-right. The journalists and commentators who had risen to prominence built on their newfound fame by singling out new enemies: Muslims and the hated "Social Justice Warrior". It also saw them making new allies: Yiannopoulos, for instance, got neo-Nazis to contribute their thoughts for his articles.
At the US Presidential election, many of these alt-right media personalities threw their weight behind Trump. Alt-right journalists became phenomenally partisan, inventing rumours to attack Hillary Clinton. Notably, Paul Joseph Watson – who no longer bangs on about the "New World Order", but hasn’t left conspiracy theory completely behind – made a video where he diagnoses Clinton with a variety of illnesses and drug abuse problems, based on conversations with largely un-named "experts".
This is a milieu that trashes the traditional orthodoxies of journalism while claiming to be reporting "the truth". Masquerading as journalists allows these figures to present their controversial worldview based on half-truths and distortions as a set of facts that an elite media class has hidden from the public. It gives their Islamophobic myopia a sense of worldly-wisdom and insider knowledge. It gives their shrieking hysteria the legitimate urgency of a front page splash and their racist provocations the defence of "free speech". Their ludicrous stunts get the cool of gonzo bravado. It gives their infatuation with Islam an apolitical sheen – no longer a racist obsession, but a thoroughly covered beat.
The Defend Europe stunt – where European "identitarians" tried to stop migrants being rescued by NGOs in the Mediterranean – was backed by some of the alt-right journalists, and their reporting often crossed the line into far-right activism.
When Tommy Robinson signed up to the Rebel in early 2017, he took this panto-journalism to strange new places. It was weird enough when he doorstepped the writer of a small blog called "Zelo Street", turning up to his house late at night for a "friendly chat" about why he would label him a "racist". It was a much pettier, more narcissistic version of Channel 4 News appearing at former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie's house to ask him about the "paper's coverage of the Hillsborough tragedy". He did the same thing to a journalist for Wales Online who labelled him "far right", and to a researcher for the Quilliam Foundation think-tank who implicitly linked him to white supremacist movements in an article published by the Guardian. On each occasion, the appeal is in the ambush and the sight of surprised journalists squirming, rather than anything particularly illuminating.
Perhaps the highlight of this new journalistic career, though, is his habit of standing outside courts and getting into shouting matches with attendees in order to "expose" alleged Muslim paedophiles, missing the fact that it's not exactly Spotlight when the person you're "exposing" is already standing trial.
After one such misadventure outside Canterbury Crown Court in Kent, Robinson had to apologise in person to a judge and was spared jail, receiving a suspended sentence for contempt of court charges.
Referring to standard reporting restrictions to protect the integrity of the trial, he complained of "what lengths they went to to prevent me from warning people what's going on". He was apparently unaware that journalists are perfectly entitled to report court cases in all their lurid detail, just not gatecrash proceedings with a camera and pre-empt the result. Court reporting is the bread and butter of traditional journalism, and there was no cover-up; local media reported the case. Robinson's "warning" was of questionable use to the people of Canterbury, since the perpetrators were found guilty and jailed for nearly 50 years.
While all that makes Robinson's circus twice as stupid, it also makes it twice as subversive. He's parking his tanks on traditional journalists' lawns and denying them even the legitimacy of their stock in trade. The fact he could have put the course of justice at risk didn't seem to damage his credibility among supporters, who funded a QC, another barrister and a solicitor for his contempt hearing.
Ridiculous though it is, Robinson's media persona serves a purpose. It's not that far-right activists haven't made their own propaganda in the past – of course they did. But in an age when anybody with a smartphone, a YouTube channel, Periscope, Twitter and a Patreon can make a living out of being a content creator, becoming a vlogger seems to be one of the chief MOs of far-right agitators. That alt-right shit-stirring so often dovetails with the agenda of the right-wing mainstream press, allowing them to act as the outriders with legitimate concerns, rather than extremists. Squaring the circle, Katie Hopkins joined the Rebel when she found the MailOnline to be "vulnerable to lobbying [from] the Muslim mafia or from the Jewish brigade".
Robinson is now leaving the Rebel and is going independent, to have "total freedom". His role as a correspondent – someone who makes "real" news – gives the illusion of weight to his catch-all "fake news" defence against criticism. This has come in especially handy recently, as court reports from the trial of Finsbury Park killer Darren Osborne show that he had repeatedly searched for Robinson's material online before the attack, which left one man dead and 12 injured.
In an interview on the BBC's Newsnight, Robinson refuses to accept any responsibility for radicalising Osborne, demanding we only look at the parts of the story which suit his agenda, to the exclusion of all others. Host Kirsty Wark points out that Osborne had two printed-out tweets of Robinson's on the dashboard of the van as he ploughed it into innocent people. Robinson focuses on one tweet – in which he asks, "Where was the day of rage after the terrorist attacks?" – and accuses Wark of "taking it out of context". He then demands to know why she missed the fact he was referencing an irrelevant left-wing protest, while himself ignoring what is clearly the most important context – that this tweet came as part of Robinson's relentless stream of Muslim-bashing.
"Why do you think that he obsessively looked you up online? Because actually it's the case that you were presenting in a way that encouraged him to take action against people," charges Wark.
"Absolutely unbelievable that you're saying that," he says. "Forty-nine million people watched my videos in that four-week period, and 193 million people read my tweets," he boasts with all the swagger of a new-media mogul, as if that's a defence.
"The reason people are searching for me is that I'm giving them the truth, unlike you."
It's tempting to ask why anybody would take that claim seriously, but as Darren Osborne’s obsessive searching of Robinson's output before his murderous attack shows, it is deadly serious.