I USUALLY enjoy listening to BBC Radio 5 Live in the morning. But on Friday, host Nicky Campbell seemed totally ill-equipped to deal with his guest, founder and editor of the far-right Canadian ‘news’ website Rebel Media, Ezra Levant.
Levant – whose employees count among their number racist, attention-seeking provocateur Katie Hopkins – has become the latest and loudest cheerleader for Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the criminal, erstwhile football hooligan and tanning salon proprietor typically known by his nom de guerre Tommy Robinson. He’s is at the forefront of a new campaign to cast Robinson as a kind of working class hero, acting to expose important issues like ‘Muslim rape gangs’ and the threat of the sinister ‘globalists’ that have been ignored by the elites.
And this is exactly what Campbell allowed him to do, first by comparing Robinson to Winston Churchill, and then by describing him as ‘the last lion’ who ‘speaks for millions of forgotten Brits.’
A nonplussed Campbell desperately tried to steer the conversation towards the visible racism of Robinson’s rallies, the abusive language used by his fellow travellers, his own character, and the conduct of #FreeTommy protests. But Levant was too clever and cunning for Campbell, turning the interview on its head: instead of even acknowledging the question, he used his platform to attack the the interviewer for his apparent bias, villainise the BBC and the mainstream media (MSM), and portray ‘Tommy’ as a heroic figure. He gave Campbell no room to breathe, and by the end of the interview, perhaps in a final bid to get Levant on side, even he was calling Robinson ‘extraordinary’ and ‘charismatic’.
Campbell’s capitulation gave Levant total control over the exchange; he was able to present his case in favour of Robinson and against the ‘MSM’ without rebuttal. The BBC had once again given far-right views legitimacy by failing to adequately challenge them.
That exchange was particularly striking because Tommy Robinson is neither ‘extraordinary’ nor ‘charismatic’. How do I know this for sure? Because I’ve met him. He approached me and a friend at our local Wetherspoons a few years ago, before he had become an international far-right icon. He chatted with us for a while, explaining why immigration isn’t really a political issue, and how he couldn’t possibly be a racist because he had some ‘Pakistani Muslims’ among his mobile contacts. He was personable and engaging, and even bought us a couple of drinks – he was clearly out to present himself as a friendly, ‘genuine’, bloke-in-the-pub, rather than actively trying to recruit us to his cause.
Tommy Robinson’s transformation into a mythologised, working-class hero has taken place because the mainstream media has allowed it to.
But that’s all he really was – a totally unremarkable ‘bloke-in-the-pub’. That was of course his appeal, and the reason he has cultivated such a following among mouth-breathing, beer-bellied, bald English blokes. But over time, these men have somehow been allowed to morph into a representation of the working class, their shouty, football-chant racism into ‘legitimate grievances’, and Robinson himself into a mythologised, working-class hero. This transformation has taken place because the mainstream media has allowed it to.
At the time, Robinson didn’t feel like the dangerous political dissident he’s now portrayed as. Certainly, there was a sense of menace looming about him – mostly from the tall man in a suit hovering in the periphery at all times – but this was a hooligan-esque danger, as if he could get Big Dave and Fat Mike to beat you up round the back of the pub if you insulted his tanning salon. We were uncomfortable, and after shaking his hand and making our escape – ‘keep the change lads’ – the last we saw of him he was being threatened by some Sikh blokes outside the toilets.
That’s my overwhelming impression of Tommy Robinson: an unremarkable racist trying to portray himself as an everyman. So the BBC’s effort to legitimise him is totally baffling.
Indeed, since his release from prison for a crime he admitted committing, the broadcaster has allowed the likes of Gerard Batten – the lump of pink flesh currently occupying the UKIP leadership – and Breitbart alumnus and Farage-brownnoser Raheem Kassam to spew effusive praise for Robinson in extended radio screeds without anyone to rebut them. While it’s perfectly valid to allowed far-right figures to simply discredit themselves, there will be enough people listening who can’t see the past the fog, and will simply think ‘actually, they might have a point.’
The BBC has an important duty to present both sides of every argument. But this means allowing experts to argue over two different but equally valid factual positions; people like Kassam and Batten have a vested interest in obscuring the truth, and in spreading lies about Tommy Robinson’s imprisonment, his views and the issues for which he fights. The BBC, as our publicly-funded broadcaster, does its listeners a disservice by presenting these untruthful opinions as legitimate positions. In this way, they become a de facto mouthpiece for all sorts of nonsense, from Tommy Robinson’s racism to climate change denial.
So in future, BBC presenters should do more than simply shrug their shoulders when Robinson or one of his proxies tells them that his stay in prison was akin to Guantanamo Bay (hang on, I thought prison was ‘too soft’). They should explain to the listening public that the prison itself has rebutted Robinson’s claims, that not everyone they host has a legitimate point to make, and that, in fact, far from being the working-class hero he has too often been portrayed as, Tommy Robinson is a nothing more than a street criminal.