There are things you always seem to hear when Tommy Robinson appears on TV: a street full of shouting protesters, someone denouncing him, the words ‘thug’ and ‘far-right’.
Offscreen, in my world, talk of Tommy Robinson is met with troubled silence. If I press them, family, friends or colleagues give off a cloud of inky disapproval – like a squid – and swim away from the subject. Tommy is taboo.
What goes into the making of a figure like Tommy Robinson? Why do so many condemn him without knowing much about him?
In this series of three 50-minute videos, The Real Tommy Robinson tells two stories. First, the story of a bright working-class lad from Luton who lost a sought-after apprenticeship, founded the English Defence League, spoke out against radical Islam and galvanised a growing populist movement in Britain. The second story is of how the police, judiciary and media have conspired to shut him up.
These stories aren’t nice. Tommy Robinson wouldn’t exist without grooming gangs, religious radicalisation, terrorism and murder, all – and this is the trouble – with an Islamic connection. Paul Burgess, maker of the videos, wants to “tell the truth in a society where the state and mainstream media seem to be no longer capable of doing so”. He expertly weaves Tommy’s account of his own life with footage detailing cover-ups by police, social services, political parties, mainstream media and local government.
Tommy Robinson and his supporters were campaigning against the grooming of young girls years before the Rotherham scandal was exposed in 2012. In episode one he describes how approaches to the authorities – he even went to see Teresa May – proved fruitless or caused him trouble. It’s hard to believe that reports of such widespread and horrific child sex abuse could fall on deaf ears, yet in footage from a 2014 parliamentary committee, the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire police is asked to explain why fathers trying to rescue their daughters (from houses where they were being used for sex) were actually arrested themselves.
Tommy’s moving anecdotes in episode two show the grooming scandals in context: his criticism of radical Islam comes from his lived experience that it is at war with our traditional values. A word here about racism. I believe Tommy when, raised in diverse Luton, he says race has never been an issue for him. (Although he turned up to his first ever press interview with three black friends the write-up still called him a racist.) The EDL was born when local Muslims were urged by their mosques to attack a soldiers’ homecoming parade. Seeing this religious motivation, Tommy Robinson correctly predicted the escalation of violent acts against the British armed forces that led to the beheading of Lee Rigby. However, four days after this tragedy, he told a 10,000 crowd of supporters in Newcastle, “there are 600 Muslims in our armed forces, they’re doing a lot more for this country than I am.”
Episode three continues what Tommy jokingly calls his confession (he has a Catholic background), detailing his brushes with the law. One of them is funny, the rest aren’t. He takes the blame where he feels its due, but it’s clear that, as soon as he set up the EDL he was targeted and arrested for political reasons. Other attempts to silence him have come from the media. A less than honest cut and paste job by Sky News falsified him as deliberately inciting fear of Islam, a piece which span headlines throughout the world.
Press bias comes out clearly too in the reporting of the 2018 Brexit Betrayal march, where Tommy Robinson appeared alongside Gerard Batten. The UKIP leader shares concerns about the dangers of radical Islam. I shouldn’t have to say this: both men on numerous occasions have stated clearly that they have no problems with non-radical Islam, and wish no harm to Muslims. This is expressed in Tommy’s words, “I disagree with the burkha, but I’d hold the door open for a lady wearing one.”
Tommy is taboo because he keeps talking about a subject that is off limits. But if there is truth in his story – and The Real Tommy Robinson shows there is – it’s a subject that needs talking about. Other people think so too: the series received a million views over social media in its first week. Need to know more before you make up your mind about Tommy? Watch the videos.