‘Tommy Robinson’: The Making of a Martyr
Byline Times’ exclusive interview with the man who says he made Stephen Yaxley-Lennon rich and an international phenomenon.
“Tommy Robinson doesn’t exist as anyone knows him, as his new supporters know him. The person that he was was created by us. He’s a myth, he’s a legend, the real core of his beliefs are the EDL, he’s a mess.”
As America welcomed Donald Trump into the White House and Britain reeled from the masochism of the Brexit Referendum, Caolan Robertson sat fascinated in his flat in London’s Chelsea, transfixed by the political and cultural shifts happening in the West.
The next three years would see him take a dark plunge into the murky waters of radicalisation and the far-right’s hate, culminating in the creation of a manufactured figurehead for the cause in the form of ‘Tommy Robinson’ 2.0: a respectable freedom fighter, secretly loved by conservatives at home and abroad.
Their first meeting, however, had an innocence about it, Robertson tells Byline Times.
In early 2017, Tommy Robinson – whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon –turned up at the then 23-year-old’s door for an interview for his new online newspaper The New Brit. Into PR and marketing and interested in alt-right ideas and the culture war, Robertson says he was struck by how “humble” and “really sweet” Robinson seemed to be.
A strange alliance was forged between the young, gay Chelsea campaigner and the right-wing Luton street protestor.
At that point, Robertson lived a vastly different life from the English Defence League founder, who was primarily known as a kind of street protestor – a far cry from the internationally known figure on the far-right which Robertson says he helped create.
Robertson says he was “super nervous” at that first meeting with Robinson because he was a liberal gay man living in a well-to-do part of the capital, but that the then 34-year-old was not the thug he expected to meet. Standing on the doorstep that day, Robinson was waving a receipt for his train fare and Robertson promised to reimburse him for the cost and to take him for fish and chips afterwards.
“He was really lovely, he was very nervous and he had an envelope with his train receipt in it which was about £22 from Luton and he was like ‘I hope you don’t mind, but can I get a reimbursement for this?,” he says.
Robertson says he was “blown away” by the interview and “loved” Robinson, believing that the people should hear what he had to say. His campaigning instincts were also aroused by the mismatch between his expectations and the shy, amiable character he’d met: “I thought: he’s lied about by the media,” Robertson says.
He was drawn to Robinson by this “overwhelming sense of injustice” and found their meeting “exciting culturally” because their worlds were so different. They also shared a sense of thriving in chaos, Robertson says.
And so a strange alliance was forged between the young, gay Chelsea campaigner and the right-wing Luton street protestor – an alliance that would last for the next two years.
From that day on, Caolan Robertson’s mission was to make ‘Tommy Robinson’ a “palpable household name in Britain with the middle class and with students – not just the working class”. Robertson’s success was as unexpected as it was profound, and helped radicalise a whole new generation.
But,he says it was a two-way radicalisation. Robertson admits he “seemed to start falling into the same belief systems” that Robinson had “in terms of talking about what he was doing for women’s rights because Muslims hate women and gay rights because Muslims hate gay men and our liberal values in our country are going to be destroyed by Islam”.
As Robertson’s inner life became more troubled and deformed, the respectable right-wing makeover of Tommy Robinson had begun.
From Luton to Chelsea
Two years ago when he met ‘Tommy Robinson’, Caolan Robertson says he did not feel that the far-right activist had a far-reaching and diverse online presence that was being monetised.
Apart from some work filming videos for the Canadian far-right media organisation Rebel Media, Robertson says that Robinson was “aimless” and had no real conviction about anything. Robertson stepped into his vacancy.
“All [Tommy] would do was turn up, read the script and leave,” as Robertson puts it.
First on his list was to drop Robinson’s rhetoric on Islam and adopt a messaging focusing on “freedom”. Robertson wrote his scripts and filmed Robinson speaking in front of “the same backdrops as the mainstream media does”. He wanted to wash off the grime of the council estate and dress Robinson in middle-class cul-de-sac chic. They filmed his videos against the backdrop of Chelsea and the Thames.
“I said why don’t we drop the Islam thing? Don’t even talk about Islam. We’re here for freedom. Freedom for diversity of thought, freedom for diversity of opinion, freedom for gay rights, freedom for women… It was a mask for the far-right I guess.”Caolan Robertson
“Whenever he was talking about Islam, he was talking about the history of Islam rather than Muslims,” says Robertson.
Then later, “I said why don’t we drop the Islam thing? Don’t even talk about Islam. We’re here for freedom. Freedom for diversity of thought, freedom for diversity of opinion, freedom for gay rights, freedom for women, freedom for everyone to do whatever you want away from the Government… A free society. It was a mask for the far-right I guess.”
Robertson admits he became obsessed with Robinson and that he was serving his own ends.
“We started to rebrand him as cool and alternative and edgy and started to do cool trailers which were highly stylised and cinematic,” he says. “Taking it away from politics and into culture. I wanted to take him away from being a political figure, arguing with the left and the right, and take him into mainstream culture because most people don’t really care about politics.”
The makeover worked, he says.
“We were getting stopped in queues at airports from super lovely families from the Cotswolds saying ‘oh my son has showed me your videos about free speech’, Robertson says. On another occasion, a glamorous British couple at an airport shook Robinson’s hands. “We obviously can’t say this back home but we think you’re fantastic,” they told him.
But, while Robinson was becoming a guilty pleasure of middle-class conservatives, the methods Robertson was using to create the Tommy he wanted were taking a sinister turn.
Through their work for Rebel Media, the pair realised that Robinson’s old brand of aggression and confrontation was still a big sell and, from this, Robertson devised a YouTube series called Trollwatch in which Tommy Robinson and his two-man video crew would turn up at the homes or offices of critics and journalists unexpectedly – the addresses for some of these visits having been sourced by Robinson’s police contacts, according to Robertson.
The early spats between Robinson and his chosen targets generated more clicks and likes on Google’s video platform, with Robertson stating that YouTube incentivised such behaviour as 80% of their traffic came from YouTube recommendations.
“We were rewarded in views, popularity and money every single time YouTube recommended these videos,” Robertson says. “It encouraged us to look at Trollwatch, to look at more on-the-ground confrontations and encouraged us to take it away from an ideological, ‘let’s talk about this’ stance to a more physical thing. We would write scripts that were quite hardcore, ‘rise up, take things into your own hands, get really serious’.”
As an independent YouTube outlet, Tommy Robinson Online, the biggest hit video showed Robinson fighting with a migrant in Rome. “It was edited in a way to make it look like the migrant was lunging towards him and that he was being attacked, Robertson says. “And then that video exploded and went viral.” Although he says the editing was not done in a calculated way, he admits it was too good an opportunity to miss.
It was also highly lucrative. Robertson estimates that, in his first five months working with Robinson independently of Rebel Media, Robinson made £450,000 in donations from individuals. Byline Times has seen evidence of a Stripe account which was receiving up to £3,000 a day in payments. Robertson says he enjoyed a nice lifestyle, but was not in it to make money and that the video team was only paid standard wages.
Soon, money was also flooding in through American foundations and politicians. “It just exploded there and that’s when all the money started coming from there,” Robertson says. “We were like ‘that’s where the money is: America, America, America, f*ck Britain, let’s not even talk about Britain anymore’.”
Why was his brand of ‘Tommy Robinson’ videos so successful? “It’s about people having a human need to be drawn to extremism – on the left or the right – but obviously the argument is that YouTube has a responsibility not to push Tommy Robinson,” Robertson says.
YouTube restricted Robinson’s YouTube account in April, removing his content from search results. He was also blocked by the platform from livestreaming events and adverts on his videos were suspended. Byline Times contacted YouTube for comment but did not receive a response.
Down the Rabbit Hole
For the income generated, the psychological cost to Caolan Roberton was high. By now, he says he was socially isolated and spending all of his time “really intensely focused on Tommy”.
“I just became quite radical and felt like it didn’t really matter what content we were making, we just had to get as many people watching as possible and if that meant making videos that were a bit nuts or a bit confrontational or a bit extreme then so be it, that’s what YouTube recommends, that’s what I’ll do,” he says.
“I became actually racist at one point because the racialisation of Islam becomes a process of it as well. You start to ‘otherise’ something so much and have zero dialogue with the other side. Then you genuinely start becoming really angry and start seeing brown people as people who automatically hate you. It was very bad. It’s why I feel like I have a responsibility to do this because I consider myself quite smart and just a normal person and how easy it is to become radicalised…”
“I became actually racist at one point… You start to ‘otherise’ something so much and have zero dialogue with the other side”Caolan Robertson
Robertson says he lost friends over his association with Robinson but saw this as a “worthy sacrifice” which won him “loyalty points”.
“It’s a very cult-like thing in the far-right and Tommy and people like that and with Nigel Farage,” he says. “Nigel Farage will only work with people he thinks are 100% on-side and 100% for the movement, never questioning anything. It’s the same with Tommy. Loyalty is beyond logic, reason, income.”
At the height of his radicalisation, Robertson says he believed Britain would become an “Islamic state” and a “third world hellhole and that everyone rich would flee and America would be the last hope”.
When Robinson was imprisoned last year for contempt of court – an offence he was returned to jail for earlier this year – Robertson says the distance provided him with perspective.
The big turning point came, he says, when he was filming a documentary, Borderless, with the Canadian far-right figure Lauren Southern, in Turkey late last year.
what the papers don’t say
Stay up to date with news from the Byline Times Team
“We were filming a human trafficker who was putting migrants into boats to send them off to the Greek islands,” Robertson says. “[There was a] field of a hundred refugees and they were all women and children and they were falling down the side of a hill and I remember this 75-year-old woman slipped down the side of a cliff and she had this bin bag of rubbish and she looked like she had broken her hip and it was filthy and dirty and I was absolutely overrun with emotion.
“We were driving away from the scene and the sun started to rise over the cliffside of this beautiful Turkish landscape and I remember turning to Lauren and saying ‘I hope they made it to Europe’, I felt their fear, they were fleeing something, they were desperate. And I realised that maybe we were wrong about all of these ideas about people coming to Europe to pillage and they’re all young men and they’re all terrorists.”
Out the Other Side
Robertson says he no longer works with Robinson or wishes to and that the last time he heard from him was in July via a text message just before Robinson went to prison.
“When you’re a supporter of Tommy there’s ‘good’ which is you, your white neighbours and your cul-de-sac and then there’s ‘evil’ which is feminists, Muslims, brown people and people who want to see the destruction of your society and that is something that can be really easily believed by the most reasonable of people – police officers, civil servants, people in marketing. So many people I’ve met along my journey would sympathise with those ideas and the content we created because it’s propaganda,” he says.
“It’s not really about Tommy. Tommy is a result of very good PR and marketing and advertising methods and it could be applied to anyone else on the right and he could be replicated in a million ways. [Don’t] focus your energies on him, but focus your energy on how information can be used and spread.”
Stephen Yaxley-Lennon is due to be released from prison at the end of September 2019, having been sentenced to nine months at the Old Bailey in July for contempt of court. Having begun his video journey targeting journalists, he ended it by wearing a t-shirt declaring ‘Convicted of Journalism’ to his sentencing.
His former producer, and the man who made ‘Tommy Robinson’ rich and internationally known, believes Robinson’s reputation has been “decimated”.
“The PR work was incredibly successful and it absolutely was the reason that he was famous again and palpable because we masked the reality of his support base and the reality of the far-right, which is the street,” Robertson says. “We never did anything on the street. Don’t go out on the street. Don’t go to protests. Don’t hold an event. Don’t go to prison. Then no one will see what your supporters are like and then we can say we have supporters of all races and all backgrounds. So, when he went to prison, people will see the reality.”
Robertson still thinks ‘Tommy Robinson’ is dangerous.
“I wanted to take him away from being a political figure, arguing with the left and the right, and take him into mainstream culture”Caolan Robertson
“Absolutely, Tommy contributed to an increase in hate crime and violence in Britain,” he says, pointing to Darren Osborne, a right-wing terrorist who mowed down worshippers at London’s Finsbury Park Mosque in June 2017 killing one, Makram Ali, and leaving 12 injured. The judge who sentenced Osborne to life imprisonment said he had been “rapidly radicalised over the internet” and by Robinson’s output.
“Things like the Darren Osborne attack and the El Paso shooting recently were inspired by people like Tommy and his rhetoric and Donald Trump’s rhetoric and a lot more emphasis should be put on people like that and that sort of thing,” Robertson says. “Newspapers should have more balls in calling that out, they’re terrified of talking about the far-right and want to call them the reactionary right. There should be more courage.”
CLARIFICATION: This article was amended on 22 August 2019 to clarify that Caolan Robertson says he believed that ‘Tommy Robinson’ did not have a far-reaching and diverse online presence and that this was not being monetised, before they met.