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IN THE festival marquee, Caolan Robertson’s smile is as white as his pristine sweatshirt.
He looks more like the member of a boy band that never quite made it than what he purports to be: the man who rebranded “Tommy Robinson” (Stephen Lennon), taking him from washed-up EDL founder to millionaire poster boy for the far right star: “I dressed him for two years — I made videos for him, with high production values, that I knew would appeal to a new audience.”
Robertson has supposedly had a major change of heart. Here on the Byline Festival stage, an event which took place at the end of last month, he says he plans to make up for his wrongdoing, and disappear from public life — but off stage later, he networks ruthlessly, posting selfies with assorted media folk and, as I will discover, planning his next career move.
Robertson even claims to be currently making videos for PM Boris Johnson. I have approached the PM’s office for comment, but true or not, they share contacts.
Steve Bannon has worked with both men and Johnson’s digital campaigns adviser, Chloe Westley, notoriously endorsed another far-right associate of Robertson’s, Anne Marie Waters of For Britain, calling her a “hero.”
Questions about Johnson’s closeness to the far right’s networks of power and money, here and abroad, have been asked for some time — yet here we are, living under one of the most undemocratic regimes Britain has experienced since the civil war.
At the festival, over in the metaphorical red corner, I present a considerably less glamorous appearance.
I was there to talk about far-right networks and funding. Three days beforehand, I had discovered Robertson was a surprise (to me, anyway) addition to the panel.
I was definitely surprised.
My first response was to pull out. But I was assured Robertson was fully repentant and about to blow the whistle, loudly, on Tommy Robinson and his gang.
There are numerous examples, here and abroad and going back decades, of fascists who have become sincerely anti-fascist.
Before his flirtation with extremism, he was a would-be reality TV star, regularly filming himself and friends living the high life in Leeds, for what he claims was a popular YouTube strand.
His first real break was on Channel 4 documentary Shut Up Your Facebook, about people addicted to online fame.
On it, Robertson admitted the lavish lifestyle he portrayed on YouTube was a facade, paid for by credit: “Just other people’s money,” he said of his £5,000 debt; and for a young man from a well-off family who was soon to set up home in Chelsea, it was probably fairly small change.
Robertson’s quest for celebrity wasn’t getting him far, however, until he and partner George Llewellyn-John came up with the idea of attaching themselves to champion far-right grifter Tommy Robinson.
The couple invited Robinson to visit them in Chelsea, and he was evidently there like a shot (and, true to form, hit them up for his train fare home).
Robinson quickly put them to work: “We started to rebrand him as cool and alternative and edgy and started to do cool trailers which were highly stylised and cinematic,” Robertson told Byline.
From the outside, Robertson was only ever a minor figure in far-right circles, and best known for dramatic fallings-out with former colleagues and explosive accusations, as well as one notorious on-camera appearance with his boss — on Westminster Bridge in March 2017.
The two men had rushed to the scene to cash in on the horror of the terrorist attack there. In the footage, Robertson is oddly unconvincing even as he shouts about the perpetrator being of “Asian origin — when you get a culture, you get a culture! A culture of violence, destruction and terrorism!”
Robinson, in a too-tight military-style Stone Island black coat (presumably picked out by Robertson), is positively pop-eyed, ranting about being at war, and the attack having “everything to do with Islam.”
“Everything to do with Islam!” Robertson suddenly jumps in to echo, with an oddly incongruous finger snap.
Three months later Darren Osborne, who a court heard was radicalised in part by Robinson’s output, committed the Finsbury Park mosque attack.
Looking back at the Westminster footage in a Sky interview in January this year, Caolan declared it “so cringe.”
During the course of the interview, Robertson also set fire to a copy of the Guardian on air, illustrating his apparent disgust for the liberal-left media.
No wonder the Sky interviewer, Niall Paterson, declared himself unconvinced by Robertson’s apparent repentance.
This appeared to have all changed within months, however, as Robertson began working with Byline Times on a series of interviews prior to the festival, in which he made fresh allegations, including that Robinson’s team paid corrupt police officers to obtain the addresses of anti-fascists, who were then harassed.
Robertson, now looking for liberal approval, also claimed to have urged Robinson to “stop talking about Islam,” which conflicts oddly with both his and Robinson’s actual utterances on the subject — in 2018 it was Robertson who took to social media with the false claim that his boss had been put in a prison that was “about 71 per cent Muslim” (Robertson was swiftly attacked on social media by other members of Robinson’s team for his presumption in claiming to be in the know, and in calling himself Robinson’s “manager” — “Who are you?” one asked.)
As recently as May this year, Robertson was plugging his and Llewellyn-John’s new “documentary” on the supposed censorship of far-right voices; it featured the usual suspects, including Anne Marie Waters and Robinson, and in it Robertson said of a Muslim cleric who objected to the film, “…following the cleric’s own logic, he must demand that the Koran — a text that has led to unthinkable bloodshed, brutality and intolerance — be censored as well.”
Less than three months later I raised my concerns about sharing a stage with this man on the panel. But this time, I was assured, was different — Robertson had further revelations about Robinson and was going to blow the whistle.
I decided to attend not only to assess his sincerity but to ensure he was held to account, on behalf of all those his work has hurt.
Robertson claims to have masterminded Trollwatch, the online Rebel Media series that filmed the harassment of opponents like Tim Fenton and Edel “Lola” Carroll by Robinson and cronies.
Carroll died last year from an accidental overdose; the coroner concluded that the relentless abuse and harassment — persecution is not too strong a word — by the far right had been a significant factor in what she called Carroll’s “cry for help.”
It’s not been proved Robertson was directly present when Carroll was victimised — the group Resisting Hate, which includes friends and loved ones, tell me they are still investigating that.
But if the concept was really his, here was my chance to make him take some responsibility.
In the marquee, three imam friends from Baitul Futuh mosque were listening carefully to the debate, as was a hero of mine, Jerry Dammers (stalwart anti-fascist musician, writer of Free Nelson Mandela as well as the Special AKA’s ever-pertinent “Racist Friend” — “If you have a racist friend, now’s the time for that friendship to end”).
The questions for Robertson were not taxing. The chair began by asking whether he felt he had been “groomed” by Tommy Robinson; naturally Robertson agreed with alacrity, although this isn’t how I’d describe a process he himself instigated.
Robertson next offered the excuse that he and Llewellyn-John had been driven to the far right because of the homophobia of Islam.
My jaw hit the floor, but the audience mostly murmured sympathetically, accepting the notion of two sophisticated, affluent young men, living in Chelsea in 2016, casting about themselves for the most LGBT friendly group in society, and landing on … fascists.
To my loudly expressed disbelief, Robertson informed me that Tommy Robinson was supportive of gay rights in person (“I don’t know how much time you’ve spent with Tommy, Louise…”) and had even invited Robertson and Llewellyn-John to meet his family.
This struck me as a peculiar thing to be impressed by — Robinson had been to their house, too, after all — unless Robertson had expected Robinson to hark back to old homophobic prejudice about “not letting gays around the kiddies” — in which case, why turn to him as a saviour from homophobia?
Robertson’s own views on homosexuality are muddled: in 2017 he called Pride in London, which he reported on for Canadian far-right site Rebel Media, a “degenerate festival.”
The group Resisting Hate also points out that when a Dublin gay bar was sprayed with swastikas and offensive homophobic slogans in 2017, Robertson tweeted: “FAKE. Things like this don’t happen. Most likely gays desperate to be victims.”
On the streets, things are far worse. Prior to the far-right attack on journalist Owen Jones last month, Jones has been spat on and called a “bent c***” by fascists.
At the very moment Robertson was on stage at Byline, members of Unite against Fascism who’d gone to support to a Polish LGBT protest outside the Polish embassy in London were called “benders” and “poofs” by Tommy Robinson supporters — language almost comical in its dated prejudice, but still used in Robertson’s former milieu.
At Byline, it was clear that many in the audience were completely sold on Robertson’s redemption.
Apart from through my interventions, his version of events as “groomed” victim and heroic whistleblower was otherwise unchallenged.
An audience member even asked for a round of applause for Robertson’s courage. It was resoundingly given, to my vocal astonishment.
It seems something of a coming trend for liberal folk to be sold on the narrative that anti-fascists are as bad or even worse than fascists, even though this line of thinking emanates from the far right and was popularised by Donald Trump, who has called for antifa to be banned even as the far right launches more deadly attacks in the US (23 people died at the hands of white supremacists in July this year alone; almost all terrorist murders in the last year were committed by fascists. In Britain, too, white extremists now form the largest proportion of terror arrests).
The Overton window has not just shifted; it appears in danger of being kicked off its hinges by a jackboot.
We now hear with increasing frequency that the far right are just confused, or even misunderstood. The reality — the street violence behind the smiling facade Tommy Robinson presents, as when his supporters, armed with hammers, tried for hours to attack the left at protests on August 3 and 24 in London — rarely makes the press, beyond stories about both sides “clashing.”
The violence is invariably one-sided: Unite against Fascism joint secretary Weyman Bennett recalls that only this spring “on one occasion, Robinson’s supporters threw rocks at our members who were peacefully opposing his MEP campaign in the north-west.”
Anti-fascist Alice Edwards was punched in the face by Robinson’s lieutenant, former convicted kidnapper Danny Thomas, in May during the same campaign.
At the festival, though, it was the “free speech” of anti-fascists that was proving unpopular in some quarters.
Surreally, Robertson himself came to my support, arguing for my right to challenge him.
An even odder moment came when I jokingly asked Jerry Dammers if he’d consider changing the lyrics of his famous song to “Don’t Free Tommy Robinson,” and Robertson began to compare himself to Nelson Mandela, saying both had had changes of heart and inaccurately claiming Mandela had regretted the use of armed struggle.
This was too much for Dammers, who firmly corrected Robertson and told him he shouldn’t presume to mention himself and Mandela in the same breath.
Robertson immediately apologised and admitted his mistake, but a woman in the audience started to barrack Dammers.
The audience largely wanted redemption and second chances, hugging and learning.
There will be no “second chance,” however, for Edel Carroll. Her partner has spoken about the horrific, misogynistic abuse Carroll received when targeted by Trollwatch: “Along with the belief of racial supremacy, comes the belief of being the superior gender and misogyny is the norm amongst the far right.
“Being opposed by a woman enraged them even more … Edel and other women constantly got death threats, threats of rape and even threats to rape her daughter.”
Carroll had been physically attacked by fascists, and by the time of her death had been given six Osman warnings, issued by police when they believe a person is at risk of murder.
Coroner Emma Whitting concluded Carroll was “…a brave and determined woman who stood up for what she believed in. Fighting against racism and any kind of hate is the bedrock of a peaceful and civilised society and her passing is undoubtedly a loss for us all.”
I asked Robertson if he felt he bore any responsibility for the suffering caused; he conceded that he did.
Misogyny on the far right is never far to seek — as I told Robertson, I was recognised and abused face to face by his replacement cameraman on a protest against Tommy Robinson recently, called a c*** and dubbed “Doctor Bitch” (I’m quite pleased with that, but this wasn’t his intention).
I asked if he had reneged on his anti-choice and anti-feminist views, and wondered how he had come by them in 2016.
He again implicated YouTube videos: “You watch one video and it might say women are great care-givers. Then a few videos down the line, it’s saying that’s ALL women should do…”
He told me he’d changed his mind about the need for feminism, hesitated, and then added that this had happened in conjunction with his friend, US far-right blogger Lauren Southern.
Sounding wholly sincere and emotional for the first time, Robertson said: “Lauren had something happen to her — something really horrible,” and this had changed her views, and his.
To me his tone and emphasis implied that “something” was male violence or abuse.
He went on to reference this as one of the factors that turned him against Tommy Robinson and his team.
On Monday June 3 this year, Southern, only 23, posted a “retirement” announcement: “Farewell. I've enjoyed this all greatly, but it's time to start a new chapter of my life.”
Certainly something changed fast for Robertson.
Robertson cited meeting refugees who were clearly genuine as a factor in his change of heart, but a complete about-face between May and June seems fast.
But am I being unfair in not yet buying the new, squeaky clean Robertson?
It’s worth remembering that not only have far-right figures faked changes of heart before, two of them have included Robertson’s former closest associates.
After Robertson’s Sky interview in January, Irish news site An Sionnach Fionn urged: “Don’t be fooled by Robertson’s attempt to soften the edges of his online persona … we’ve seen several figures in the populist-right in the United Kingdom and the United States adopt similar tactics to gain access to mainstream media, dissociating themselves from explicit racists while remaining faithful to their overarching cause.
“Tommy Robinson followed [this path] some years ago in a strategy initially aided by the gullibility — or culpability — of the press in the UK.”
Tommy Robinson did indeed claim to have turned his back on fascism in 2015, appearing at a press conference with controversial anti-extremist Muslim group the Quilliam Foundation. This ended with Robinson alleging he’d scammed Quilliam, who had paid him well for his “change of heart,” and Quilliam claiming Robinson and Rebel Media employee George Llewellyn Jones had forced their way into Quilliam’s offices, using threatening and abusive language.
More recently, Lucy Brown, who worked as a photographer for Tommy Robinson, and was so devoted to him she had his prison number tattooed on her arm (only one of them — if she’d gone for the lot she’d be starting to resemble a human sudoku), claimed to have left the fold, made allegations to the media, then returned to Robinson’s side.
She deleted her social media again once Robinson was back in jail, but popped up this month at the wedding of Martin Sellner, leader of the Generation Identity fascist group and the man the perpetrator of the Christchurch massacre credited with inspiring his politics.
Robertson himself has been trying to sell his disillusionment with various far-right colleagues for two years: in 2017 he announced he’d parted company with Rebel Media, claiming in a YouTube video that the media outlet had solicited donations for its campaigns beyond the required amounts, lied about its costs and misrepresented how it spent donations (Robertson signed off by asking viewers to contribute to his new media channel of which there is, as yet, no sign).
Ezra Levant of Rebel Media called his claims “a complete lie,” counter-alleging Robertson and Llewelyn-John had blackmailed him.
Interestingly, in the process Levant mentioned Rebel Media’s purchase of a state-of-the-art wheelchair for a British army veteran — two years later, Robinson would himself take credit for this purchase at an election rally during his failed MEP bid. Working out just who is grifting whom on the far right is no simple task.
Adding to the confusion, another would-be far-right celebrity, Milo Yiannopoulos, recently accused both Robertson and Llewellyn-John of theft (devoting an entire video, “Say Farewell to the Klepto Queens of the Far Right,” to this).
Robertson is, of course, a marketing graduate, and off-stage at Byline told fellow guests: “Everything can be manipulated.”
Then came his most jaw-dropping backstage allegation.
He told festival attendees that Lauren Southern’s sudden disappearance from public life had one, shocking, main cause.
He alleged that she had been raped by a well-known figure in the British far right. There is an old, unproven rape allegation against the same man.
Sexual abuse of women is endemic on the far right. Jayda Fransen of Britain First has spoken about being abused, assaulted and locked in her flat by her then partner Paul Golding (another associate of Robertson and Robinson’s).
The Freedom Programme charity has found that where there is a far-right presence in an area, there are always higher incidences of violence and sexual abuse against women.
There are more than 38 recent known convictions for abuse, rape and even the murder of a child victim by members of the British far right.
If the allegation about Southern is true, and/or Robertson believes it to be so, he can prove himself by denouncing the attack on his friend and former colleague to the authorities — reporting, this time, to the police, not the media.
But I’m not holding my breath: two weeks after the festival I discovered he is making a new documentary, apparently with the team who produced Netflix documentary The Big Hack, and is being been wined and dined in London by Netflix staff.
To quote John Lydon on another arch-media manipulator, Malcolm McLaren: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been had?”
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