Tommy Robinson: The rancour, rhetoric and riches of brand Tommy

Dominic Casciani
Home affairs correspondent
@BBCDomCon Twitter

Image source, PA Media

It's May 2019.

A small crowd surrounds a mobile screen on the Brinnington council estate in Stockport. They've gathered to hear Tommy Robinson who wants to become their Member of the European Parliament. He says he's speaking for them - standing up against the elites in politics and the media.

"They don't live where we live. They don't experience what we experience," he says.

But while Tommy Robinson was rousing the clutch of onlookers in this deprived corner of Greater Manchester, his four-bedroom country home was on the market for £900,000. The estate agency pictures show a Range Rover parked on the driveway, a hot tub in the garden and a TV above the bath.

The property remains on the market, but Robinson's home will be a prison cell for the immediate future. On Thursday, he was jailed for nine months after being found guilty of contempt of court.

As he was taken to the cells Robinson winked to his supporters sitting in the public galley.

Image caption,
Robinson's house is on the market for £900,000

His crime had been to livestream, via Facebook, footage of defendants arriving at court in a sexual grooming trial. The action - a direct challenge to the mainstream media - jeopardised a court case and broke the cornerstone rule of English justice that guarantees a fair trial.

Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, hates the mainstream media. It's because, he says, they lie about him and conceal the truth about Islam, sexual grooming gangs and the "forgotten" people of England. As he says these things, he swerves from apparent outrage to cheeky jokes. Help me, he asks his followers. I speak for you.

Last week, outside the courthouse where he had been found guilty, he repeated the rhetoric. Flashing a winning smile to a crowd who chanted his name, Robinson appeared defiant.

An apprentice engineer

Tommy Robinson, a married father-of-three, grew up in Luton, Bedfordshire. His double-barrelled surname evolved from his natural father leaving home and his mother's second husband stepping in to raise the two-year-old. He won a prized place as an apprentice aircraft engineer at Luton Airport and looked set for a successful career - until it came crashing down after a drunken night out. Yaxley-Lennon had got into a fight with a man who turned out to be an off-duty police officer. He was jailed for a year.

Tommy Robinson's key convictions:

  • 2005: Jailed for assault occasioning actual bodily harm (12 months)
  • 2011: Community order for football brawl (12 months)
  • 2013: Travelling on another man's passport to the USA (10 months)
  • 2014: Mortgage fraud (18 months)
  • Others offences: Possession of drugs, threatening behaviour and breach of court order

Contempt of court findings:

  • May 2017: Canterbury Crown Court: three months suspended for 18 months
  • July 2019: Guilty of contempt of court in relation to trial at Leeds Crown Court in 2018. Jailed for nine months.

On his release, he went back to his old life of drinking and messing around with his football mates. But he also worked very hard, alongside his father, as a plumber. He earned a good living, renovating properties before selling them on. He opened a tanning salon in Luton. Times were good.

He also nurtured a growing interest in politics, driven by his perception of what was happening in his home town. The extremist al-Muhajiroun network - whose followers have been at the centre of numerous terrorism plots - had a powerbase in Luton. It's debatable whether Yaxley-Lennon would have become Tommy Robinson had they not been on his home turf. Yaxley-Lennon and his friends were concerned that police were doing little or nothing to combat the threat of "radical Islam" on their streets.

In March 2009, al-Muhajiroun activists disrupted a homecoming parade of Royal Anglian Regiment soldiers returning from Afghanistan. They called soldiers murderers and the incident made national news. Yaxley-Lennon and his football friends had organised a counter-demonstration. The result were some clashes in the town - and the the creation of the English Defence League.

Yaxley-Lennon and his closest confidants realised they could build support for their cause across Britain, by using Facebook. There was no membership list and no clear aim - only a desire to take on "radical Islam". According to Yaxley-Lennon in his self-published autobiography, it would be the start of "years of mad laughs with the lads". As media attention grew, and he emerged as the EDL's de facto leader, he decided he needed a pseudonym. At first he called himself Wayne King - a schoolboy joke he initially got away with in a radio interview.

Ultimately, he borrowed the name of the organiser of Luton Town's football hooligan firm, Tommy Robinson. It stuck.

In September of that year, Robinson complained to BBC News of town centres "plagued by Islamic extremists".

"Those are our town centres, and we want them back."

At demonstrations, the chant "Muslim bombers, off our streets", could often be heard. The EDL was a new far-right front - but "Tommy" denied he was racist. He freely admitted to having flirted with the British National Party until he discovered they objected to his black friends. Later he was convicted of assaulting one EDL follower whom he accused of being a neo-Nazi infiltrator - or as he put it at the time, "a degenerate mug". But he also perpetuated and spread far-right myths, such as a claim that Muslims are statistically on course to outnumber "Europeans" this century.

Each event appeared to draw a bigger crowd. By 2011 the group had gathered sufficient support to prompt police to close Luton town centre for a day to facilitate the EDL's "homecoming" protest. But Robinson's campaign was also unravelling because of his inability to control his followers or his own behaviour. Later that year he received a 12-month community rehabilitation order after a massive football brawl between supporters of his beloved Luton Town FC and those of Newport County. As the fists flew, he led his followers in a chant of "EDL till I die".

And in January 2013, Robinson was jailed for 10 months for travelling to the United States on someone else's passport in an attempt to sidestep an entry ban.

The time in prison began to take its toll. He began to question what he was doing. When he was released, Robinson quit the EDL, saying he no longer felt he could keep at bay extremist elements within the organisation. He told the BBC in October 2013 that he wanted to "lead the revolution against Islamist ideology" but not a revolution against Muslims.

Grooming gangs

But that apparent conversion, assisted by a Muslim-led anti-extremism think tank, didn't last long. In January 2014, Robinson was jailed again - this time for 18 months - for his part in a complicated mortgage fraud. When he was released, he appeared angrier - but also more focused. In a speech to the Oxford Union later that year, his target became clear. He focused on sexual grooming gangs from predominantly Asian backgrounds. He accused the police of facilitating "the rape of children" for 20 years because they were afraid of being called racist.

"We have a two-tier police force that treats crimes within the Muslim community differently," he said.

He became obsessed with his belief that Muslims were predisposed to violence because of the Koran. It was his ticket to a new way of making money. He attempted to set up a British wing of Germany's anti-Islam party Pegida. In one January 2016 speech in Denmark, he warned about a "military invasion" of Europe as hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees - many fleeing the Islamic State extremist group - sought asylum from war in their country.

This obsession coincided with the explosion in social media channels and mobile phone use that allowed anyone, anywhere to be a broadcaster, publisher and wannabe journalist - and the factors formed his ticket to making a lot of money.

Tommy Robinson predominantly used Twitter and Facebook to promote his "new era". His films and posts increasingly came with an appeal for donations via PayPal, bitcoin or other routes. And the cash came in. And once people were invested in Tommy - they'd come back for more.

Robinson, slowly but surely, became a leading far-right global brand. That attracted interest from across the Atlantic - and he struck gold.

The internet is awash with far-right and far-left websites, blogs and channels. One of the most successful on the right has been The Rebel Media, a Canadian outfit run by an arch conservative polemicist, Ezra Levant.

Image source, Rebel Media
Image caption,
Ezra Levant: Key backer who has raised cash for the Tommy Robinson brand

Levant has been accused in his home country of perpetrating a paranoid and delusional conspiracy theory. It is that the world's liberal elites are complicit in hiding the truth about Islam. He raises millions of dollars from his audience and substantial support from wealthy US backers. They include Robert Shillman, the head of a multi-billion-pound US technology firm.

Mr Levant employed Robinson and launched him in 2017 as The Rebel's "Shillman fellow" UK correspondent.

Material seen by the BBC indicates The Rebel was so well-financed that Robinson earned a salary that, at times, touched more than £10,000 a month - with additional funds for a three-person film-making team.

His brief was to produce provocative and emotional films that would enrage his audience by exposing the "truth" about liberal "elites". He'd highlight stories where he claimed white working class people in the UK were becoming second class citizens. While Robinson and The Rebel later parted in a row over his inability to raise enough cash for Levant's ambitions rather than himself, the film-making approach stuck.

"Left Behind": What makes people turn to the far-right?

Image source, BBC Three
  • There is no single established route to extremism
  • Research suggests competition for social housing is a factor where communities fear losing out to newcomers
  • Some experts say job insecurity also plays a part
  • There has been a rise in fear of Islam and Muslims which far-right groups play on
  • Social media and fake news outlets then spread hate messages
  • People most likely to be groomed by extremists - the poorest in society - are the least likely to consume credible news sources

One film from 2018 concerned the killing of three London teenagers who were hit by a drunk-driver who was also using cannabis. The driver was Asian with a Hindu-heritage name. He pleaded guilty and was jailed.

But Tommy Robinson's film was headlined Three Boys: Tragedy or Terrorism? There had been no evidence of a terrorist motive. But that didn't stop him speculating.

"It's clear these families have been systematically failed and lied to by the police," he said in his piece to camera. "I can't be 100% certain that this was a terrorist attack. If this was a terrorist attack and cover-up, we could be looking at so many more terrorist attacks than we could ever have imagined."

The mother of one of the teenagers has since been part of demonstrations against the authorities, demanding the truth be told.

Along the way Robinson self-published a second book called Muhammad's Koran: Why Muslims Kill for Islam. With his co-author, he wrote: "If you are a Muslim, please put this book down. We do not wish you to become a killer because this book leads you to understand the doctrines and history of Islam more thoroughly."

Tommy Robinson's Facebook page - the centre of his publishing and fund raising - eventually accrued one million followers.

Some have sought to dismiss Tommy Robinson as a shouty former hooligan. But that is not a view shared by security chiefs. While the English Defence League faded, Brand Tommy became more and more trusted by his supporters. Darren Osborne, who drove a van into worshippers at a north London mosque in 2017 appeared to have been a follower.

Image source, Twitter
Image caption,
One of the Tommy Robinson tweets that is thought to have influenced Darren Osborne

Osborne had been shocked by a BBC drama about the sexual abuse of vulnerable girls by predominantly Asian men in Rochdale. He went online to find out more - and evidence at his trial revealed that a rambling note he left in the cab of his van was seemingly inspired by Tommy Robinson's words and causes.

Robinson, and his supporters, were enraged he was being accused indirectly of causing the attack. It lifted his new media profile further.

Then, in May 2017, he committed his first contempt of court. Robinson turned up at Canterbury Crown Court and filmed defendants in a grooming case. The judge said the filming could have derailed the trial. He sentenced Robinson to three months in prison, suspended for 18 months. But a year later Robinson was back, this time outside Leeds Crown Court, to do the same again.

He filmed for more than an hour, discussing a trial that was subject to reporting restrictions and approaching some of the defendants in confrontational scenes. The broadcast went out live to a Facebook audience of 10,000 viewers - and was watched 250,000 times overall. Robinson was arrested at the scene and the judge activated the Canterbury suspended sentence - and jailed him for another 10 months on top.

His supporters were outraged. Ezra Levant, chief of Rebel Media, organised a fund-raising campaign. And it worked.

Media caption,
Part of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon's contempt of court at Leeds

The wealthy US-based Middle East Forum, which describes itself as working to "protect Western civilisation from the threat of Islamism" helped pay for lawyers. They won an appeal for Robinson to be released and the case to be reheard in full. At the same time, according to individuals with insider knowledge, the donations and online revenue rolled in and Tommy Robinson became personally wealthier than before.

Today, thanks to that hearing, we know Robinson nearly derailed the Leeds trial after judges at the Old Bailey revealed what happened next. There were attempts by the grooming gang defendants to have the trial stopped on the basis that a jury could no longer reach a fair verdict. One of the men even managed to get a hearing at the Court of Appeal that could have led to him being freed.

None of Robinson's supporters seemed to care about this.

They believed Robinson was being muzzled - that the man they were convinced was speaking up for victims, and them, was being denied his free speech.

In the 14 months since the Leeds incident, there have been eight London demonstrations in his support, claiming there is a conspiracy involving the government, police and media. There is no doubt that some of his supporters see him as a messiah. Outside the Old Bailey they have carried posters of him depicted as St George and also a lion. They have booed and spat at journalists and assaulted camera crews.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Devoted followers: But numbers have dwindled as Robinson's legal battle has worn on

By late 2018, Robinson had been thrown off the major social media platforms for breaking hate speech rules. He was even banned from Paypal. He later revealed his income had fallen by 70%. The level of dedicated, rather than casual, support started to appear fragile.

And when he ran to be an MEP in the North West, he was humiliated - getting just 2% of the vote and losing his £5,000 deposit.

Deprived of the means to raising lots of cash, including from advertising around his films, he was literally begging for donations. He did so by presenting himself, as his autobiography has it, as the persecuted "enemy of the state". But his claimed persecution comes with a dark edge. When he was first in jail for the Leeds contempt in 2018, he wrote a letter to supporters:

"For a while now I've been sure that I will be murdered for opposing Islam… although now I sit here smiling with the belief that my murder would start a revolution," said Robinson.

His supporters have repeated similar claims. He is their martyr-in-the-making - albeit one who lives in a country house with a sunken hot tub.

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