GUY ADAMS asks why British hatemonger Tommy Robinson is being funded by American billionaires
An old-fashioned media scrum greeted Tommy Robinson when he was freed on bail last week, having successfully appealed against his jail term for contempt of court.
Accompanied by a tattooed heavy, the far-Right activist refused to answer questions from assembled reporters and camera crews, declaring: ‘All the mainstream media do is lie…I’ve got a lot to say [but] nothing to you.’
Robinson, 35, then adjourned home, changed into fresh designer clobber and submitted himself to chummy interviews with his two preferred news outlets.
Tommy Robinson’s being hailed a hero by the far-Right. And, in a sinister twist his lavish lifestyle is being bankrolled by a flood of foreign money
The first to hear from him was Trump-supporting current affairs channel Fox News, which broadcasts across the U.S.; the second was an anti-Islamic website from Canada called The Rebel Media.
This somewhat unconventional choice of outlets lays bare a curious fact: that while his divisive brand of rabble-rousing has, for years, been largely confined to these shores, an increasing portion of the father-of-three’s support base and (perhaps more importantly) money now hails from overseas.
Take, for example, his social media following. In the hysteria following his imprisonment, only 40 per cent of the half-million odd tweets urging the authorities to ‘free Tommy’ were uploaded in the UK, according to research by the anti-extremist charity, Hope Not Hate.
Around a third came from America, where conspiracy-theorist Right-wingers regard his prosecution (for potentially prejudicing a trial by illegally filming both himself and defendants outside Leeds Crown Court) as part of a sinister Establishment plot.
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On Facebook, between a third and a half of the 945,000 people following this self-styled crusader for English working-class values live outside the UK.
Crucially, however, some of them appear to have very deep pockets. Donors from as far afield as Istanbul and Washington responded to a plea on Robinson’s YouTube page to send him the crypto-currency Bitcoin. During his time behind bars, he was sent almost £20,000, with one generous soul sending £5,500.
Still more was raised via a host of crowd-funding appeals, along with a link on Robinson’s own website where fans of his inflammatory actions are invited to set up monthly direct debits ‘to support Tommy’s work,’ and are informed that a donation of £100 will get you ‘access to a monthly Google hangout with Tommy and a signed copy of Mohammed’s Koran (his book on ‘why Muslims kill for Islam’).
Those donations are processed by Stripe, a tech payments firm, one of whose biggest investors is Peter Thiel, the PayPal founder who made a hefty donation to Donald Trump’s election campaign.
Last year, Robinson — founder of the far-Right English Defence League (EDL) — raised £49,000 in a few weeks to finance the building of a ‘low cost’ recording studio in his hometown of Luton ‘with a British theme’, where he can produce films that, as he puts it, ‘tell our side of the story’.
The appeal site is still accepting donations, financing a soapbox from which Robinson — who once likened Muslim babies to time-bombs, and in 2012 threatened the UK’s Muslim population with EDL retaliation in the event of a terror attack — continues to spout inflammatory rhetoric.
When it comes to the ‘monetising’ of the Robinson ‘brand’, appeals to individuals are only part of the picture, however.
For behind the scenes, an opaque and controversial network of U.S. billionaires and far-Right lobby groups are also funnelling cash his way.
Legal fees for the recent court case, for example, in which he instructed a high-profile QC, are being covered by the Middle East Forum, a controversial think-tank based in Philadelphia.
The Forum has previously bankrolled Geert Wilders, a Dutch parliamentarian once banned from the UK for anti-Islamic rhetoric, and has been described by the anti-racist Centre for American Progress as being ‘at the centre of’ a so-called ‘Islamophobia network’ of hard-Right groups.
Last month it paid the bill for Paul Gosar, a Republican member of the U.S. Congress, to fly to London to address a rally of Robinson supporters.
Then there is Robert Shillman, the billionaire founder of tech firm Cognex, whose clients include the supermarket chain Asda and drug company AstraZeneca.
He financed a ‘Shillman fellowship’ that last year allowed Robinson to be employed by the aforementioned Rebel Media site on what was said to be a ‘high five-figure salary’. The grant also allowed his three assistants to be paid a reported £2,500 a month.
Mr Shillman, a reclusive figure, uses income from the tech firm to channel funds to a variety of far-Right organisations, including the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a California-based ‘school for political warfare’ dedicated to defending conservative values from ‘attack by leftist and Islamist enemies.’
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a prominent civil rights charity, has described the Freedom Center as a ‘hate group’ which publishes ‘anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant racist sentiment’. Another generous donor is Pamela Geller, a wealthy anti-Muslim blogger from New York famed for provocative and — critics say — highly racist rhetoric who is banned from the UK because her presence here would ‘threaten the public good’. She has given at least 10,000 dollars to ‘help his family’ according to a report by Hope Not Hate.
Such support at least partly helps explain one of the enduring mysteries about Tommy Robinson, whose name at birth was Stephen Christopher Yaxley but who was prosecuted under the surname Yaxley-Lennon, taken from his stepfather Thomas Lennon, who raised him from the age of seven.
Namely: how this articulate but often ugly purveyor of hate — who boasts a string of prior convictions for assault, drug offences, passport offences and fraud — maintains his turbo-charged lifestyle?
On paper, Robinson certainly has an odd pedigree. A former engineer at Luton Airport, he was sacked in 2004 after receiving a year’s prison sentence for punching and kicking an off-duty policeman who intervened in a domestic dispute with his then-girlfriend Jenna Vowles, who he later married.
Since then, he has never held a conventional job, but for the past decade has lived curiously high on the hog.
Currently on holiday with Jenna and their three children in Tenerife, for the second time in recent months, Robinson reportedly has a £500,000, four-bedroom home in an upmarket Bedfordshire village.
He also loves fast cars. For an interview with Vice magazine a few years back, he turned up ‘in a shiny new BMW 1 series with leather seats, was kitted out from top-to-toe in designer sports gear and reeked of posh cologne’. He’s been filmed driving a Subaru, a Ford, a Chrysler and an Audi.
Sartorially, he generally sports well-tailored suits, Ray-Ban and Prada sunglasses and £250 Gucci and Louis Vuitton belts. His wardrobe staples are £100 T-shirts and £500 coats made by Stone Island, a brand once described as ‘the imperial robes of ladwear’.
In 2013, Robinson was spotted browsing £800 Puffa jackets at Selfridges, where an Asian shop assistant refused to serve him. After he complained on social media, the store apologised and gave him a free meal in its Hix restaurant which reportedly ‘included £25 portions of char-grilled sirloin steak and chips, and chocolate cake and ice-cream’.
Last year, he was filmed brawling outside Ascot racecourse, seemingly a favourite day out. On another occasion, he was turfed out of a casino in Milton Keynes after it emerged that his name was on a list of banned players.
When he took to Twitter to complain about the latter incident, one wag replied: ‘Tommy Robinson asked for donations for legal bills while wearing a Rolex, shopping at Selfridges and visiting a casino! It’s not funny you know.’
In fact, Robinson’s preferred brand of watch is Chanel. Though careful not to wear it for most public appearances, he’s occasionally been photographed in a chunky J12 wristwatch with a bling-encrusted bracelet and face.
He wore the piece to the Oxford Union, where he gave a speech in 2014. The watch’s value depends on whether the jewels are diamond or diamanté. The former would make it worth £250,000, the latter a ‘mere’ £20,000.
In interviews, Robinson has explained his ability to buy luxury items by claiming that he made large amounts of money in the few years surrounding his 2004 prison sentence via the property trade.
He once told the Huffington Post website that during his 20s he worked for ‘this Dave fella’ as a plumber on developments and said he found himself ‘doing £70,000-£80,000 projects and employing six people’.
Robinson then said he’d gone into business with a property developer from Milton Keynes, who ‘gave me some backhanders’ by selling him re-possessed properties which he renovated and rented out. By the age of 25, he claims to have owned seven of them, along with a lucrative tanning shop business.
‘By 2007, Robinson, now a father-of-one, had two businesses — plumbing and a sunbed shop — and an expanding portfolio of rentals,’ the interview claimed.
There is, however, a major problem with this version of events: namely there’s no legal record of Robinson having ever run any plumbing company.
Former English Defence League (EDL) leader Tommy Robinson leaves Onley Prison, near Rugby
In fact, the only business he’s ever registered involvement with is called Maximum Trading Limited. Purportedly a property firm, he was a director under the name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, from 2007 until 2010.
It never filed accounts, claiming to be dormant throughout its entire existence, meaning it never declared any income or paid tax. In 2013, it was struck off the register at Companies House.
His wife Jenna was a director of a business called ‘Tanning @ Unit 2’ from 2009 to 2013. While the premises appear to have been active throughout this period, the business filed accounts claiming it was also dormant. The firm was then struck off the register.
Around the same time, Jenna was arrested for tax evasion and money-laundering. Detectives, Robinson told interviewers, concluded that their supposedly dormant sunbed business had evaded around £137,000 in tax.
Several of their assets were frozen, but when the case came to court, they were found not guilty.
By then, Robinson, who cut his political teeth in the racist BNP, had become a public figure, having been inspired to found the EDL in 2009 after seeing a group of Islamic extremists shout ‘terrorists’ at troops parading through Luton after returning from Afghanistan.
With a cabal of local football fans, he led a backlash against the protesters. Then, having assumed the alias ‘Tommy Robinson’ — the name of a well-known Luton football hooligan from the 1970s — he organised a series of anti-Muslim protest marches. Several ended in violence, including a demonstration against a new mosque in Harrow, north-west London, which in 2010 saw him mentioned in the national Press for the first time.
As its profile grew, the EDL became riven by a number of internal disputes — and in 2013, Robinson announced his departure, claiming to be disenchanted with Neo-Nazi infiltration.
He briefly formed an unlikely alliance with an anti-extremist organisation called the Quilliam Foundation. But that swiftly fell apart as legal woes unrelated to Robinson’s political career began to catch up with him.
First, he was prosecuted and jailed for travelling to the U.S. using a passport of a friend called Andrew McMaster (his previous convictions prevented him travelling there under his real name).
During the court case, it emerged that Robinson’s own passport identified him as Paul Harris — yet another alias acquired by changing his name via deed poll several years earlier (for reasons he’s never explained). He got ten months.
Then he was prosecuted for mortgage fraud and served six months in prison after being found to be the ‘instigator if not the architect’ of a £160,000 series of scams in which several mortgages were obtained by deception by a group of his associates. A confiscation order required him to pay £125,000.
After serving this sentence, Robinson appears to have concluded that the best way to repair his tattered finances would be to reinvent himself as a ‘journalist, activist and public figure fighting for the forgotten people of the UK’.
Tommy Robinson arriving at Westminster Magistrates Court
He wrote a couple of books, including an autobiography, before securing a regular and generous income via the job for the Right-wing website Rebel Media. His stock-in-trade was to produce provocative short films. Many played fast and loose with facts — some might call them ‘fake news’ — but succeeded in motivating viewers to donate money.
A typical example saw him travel to the spot in Woolwich where soldier Lee Rigby was murdered by an Islamic extremist, in order to complain about the fact that no memorial has been erected there.
He conveniently forgot to mention, however, that — at the request of Lee’s parents — a large memorial was instead erected in his hometown of Manchester.
In another video, he wrongly claimed that three teenage boys killed by a drunk-driver in Hayes were the victims of a terrorist attack ‘covered up’ by the police and media. His only evidence was that the driver had been Asian.
Last week, a photographer called Lucy Brown, who helped to produce such films, turned whistle-blower, telling The Sunday Times that Robinson was guilty of ‘panto-journalism’ in which he deliberately created false narratives to outrage viewers who would then donate money to him.
‘I used to think, foolishly, that when he went home he was doing his research and putting case files together,’ Brown said. ‘He doesn’t. He just goes home and eats crisps and looks himself up on Twitter.’
Fans have, sad to say, lapped it up. Indeed, so successful were the films that Robinson decided late last year to leave The Rebel Media and set up a personal news website which would allow him to keep all of his crowd-funded revenue.
All of which led to his recent imprisonment. For a few months later, he twice broadcast footage from outside courts where sex-grooming trials were in progress, even though reporting restrictions designed to prevent a jury from being prejudiced were in force.
He pleaded guilty to contempt of court and was locked up for two months, before being released on bail last week, having become a folk hero to the American Right.
Robinson now awaits retrial — but however that pans out, this lover of designer clothes, fast cars and sunshine holidays may very well look at the money now rolling in and conclude that getting locked up was perhaps not as bad as it first appeared.
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