A Note on Tommy Robinson vs Panorama

From UKIP leader Gerard Batten on Twitter, last week:

Tommy Robinson is going to reveal how the BBC’s Panorama set out to frame him in its ‘Tommy Takedown’ programme. He has undercover evidence proving a ‘fake news’ scandal that will shock the nation. He says he will reveal all on 23rd Feb. My advice to him is don’t wait, do it now.

Such an extended delay raises the suspicion that Robinson is more interested in hyping his material rather than relying on the substance of it – by the time we get to 23 February his supporters will be so invested in the eagerly anticipated exposé (entitled Panodrama) that its status as a devastating revelation will be an article of faith whether or not it delivers on Robinson’s promises.

In the meantime, though, Robinson has trailed a couple of segments on his Facebook page, derived from undercover recordings of Panorama journalist John Sweeney apparently in conversation with informants known to Robinson. In one of these, Sweeney talks about how unusual it is to have working-class people as guests on BBC Newsnight, and he recalls going out for a drink with one because of the novelty of it. Warming to an anthropological analogy, he perhaps infelicitously says that he undertook this foray like “the way that you would do with somebody, from the, you know a cannibal from… Amazonia or maybe a creature from outer space”. Inevitably, Robinson has presented this as evidence that Sweeney regards working-class people as being “like cannibals”.

The second segment shows Sweeney acting out Private Eye magazine’s golden age of Fleet Street character Lunchtime O’Booze, quaffing his way through an array of beverages at an extravagant liquid lunch for two and ostentatiously charging £220 to expenses. This might reasonably be considered a misuse of money raised by the BBC licence fee, both because of the bill itself and because Sweeney was unlikely to be of much use to his employer for the rest of the day. This was an unnecessary embarrassment, which raises general questions about the privileges and leeway enjoyed by celebrity journalists at the BBC and perhaps elsewhere (and, given the excessive consumption, whether the BBC has a duty of care to an employee with an addiction).

Some of Robinson’s supporters meanwhile are supplementing these clips with Sweeney’s infamous 2007 “exploding tomato” routine, in which he was goaded into yelling at a Scientology spokesperson during a previous investigation (discussed by me here). In both instances, it seems to me, Sweeney underestimated his quarry.

Robinson claims that his video will reveal attempts to “blackmail” associates into making false claims against him, and he has highlighted Panorama‘s partnership with Hope Not Hate, which has the franchise as the official face of anti-extremist activism in UK, notwithstanding some methodological criticisms and other concerns. He also claims that staff working on the Panorama documentary informally referred to it as the “Tommy Takedown”, thus indicating bias. It seems to me that it is always worth questioning why a particular news documentary is made at any particular time, but this does not mean it lacks value or legitimacy. For instance, I was very pleased when Panorama discredited the buffoonish MP Patrick Mercer, but I still wonder why exactly he was targeted when he was.

Currently, Robinson’s clips of Sweeney are being ignored by the mainstream media – naturally, however, articles have appeared on Breitbart, and there is also a write-up in Czech that has been posted to Filip Vávra’s Středoevropan website. The Sun, in contrast, has published self-recorded clips of Robinson in Bologna last month drunkenly boasting that he can score drugs and describing a taxi as “a little Paki that drives a car”. In a Facebook video, Robinson has dismissed all this as harmless banter with Asian friends, and suggested that the clips have appeared in response to his plans to expose Panorama. (1)

Anti-BBC activists on the right are likely to promote Robinson’s work, thus mainstreaming him further – and his clips have also been highlighted opportunistically by the self-described police whistleblower Jon Wedger, who wrote on Twitter that “I feel the BBC need to do more to expose an establishment cover up. Especially in relation to former PM Edward Heath”. (2)

Footnotes

1. Intriguingly, Robinson also says that he “had a meeting this week with a bishop”.

2. Wedger is currently attempting to revive lurid allegations against Heath that were done to death and found wanting between 2015 and 2017, perhaps in order to ingratiate himself with Mike Veale. Wedger also clarifies that “I don’t like Tommy for many reasons but I do like that he’s gone undercover at Panorama”. However, one video promoted on his website is titled “Insight UK Column – Support for Tommy Robinson”.

The conspiracy milieu in general has grudge against Panorama after it debunked specific “Westminster VIP” child-sex abuse allegations in 2015. However, some of the BBC’s output has been more credulous: most notoriously, Newsnight‘s botched segment on Bryn Estyn in late 2012, and in 2015 Becky Milligan’s “David’s Story” segments for BBC Radio 4’s The World at One.

Jon Wedger Finds another Edward Heath Accuser

At the start of the month, self-described “police whistleblower” Jon Wedger announced a new allegation against former Prime Minister Ted Heath:

We are going live this morning. With former BBC ITV reporter @BreesAnna interviewing a man claiming to have been sexually abused by Former prime minister Sir Edward Heath, and launching his book

The accuser in this instance is one Michael Tarraga (var. Mike Tarraga), who says that he was brought to Heath while he was a child in care. According to his account, as given in an interview with Brees:

Uncle Teddy was a sailor. A politician sailor. I didn’t know anything about him. I was taken one afternoon [from school]… to a place called Pin Mill, which was a little sailing place in Suffolk I think it was, or Essex. And [I] went there, and there was a silver-haired man, a portly chap, and another chap who I was told was a doctor. And I was with another boy, we were told to swim naked, which we did, or in our underwear, which we did also, and spent an interesting afternoon in a foc’sle cabin with who I discovered was called Ted Heath, who was a very prominent sailor. That’s all I knew. I knew nothing else. And it clocked years later, “this Prime Minister played with me”. That’s what I thought. I thought no-one, nobody in their right senses is going to believe me. And I was right. Nobody did believe me.

In another video, Brees explains that this was in 1962, when Tarraga was 13 years old.

Tarraga has had a difficult life, which he has written about in a 2017 self-published memoir titled The Successful Failure: The Life of an Uncouth Lout. However, under the guidance of Wedger and Brees, the book has now been re-published as Meat Rack Boy, in reference to the notorious rent-boy scene that used to exist in the vicinity of Piccadilly Circus in central London. This new edition includes the Heath story: as Brees says, “what we’ve done with the book is put a little bit more detail in […]. We’ve also talked about the incident with Edward Heath”.

Wedger previously interviewed Tarraga last month, and according to Brees Heath’s name came up afterwards: “It was Jon Wedger was talking to you after, you know, off-camera, and you just said ‘yeah, I saw him. He was called Uncle Teddy'”. In other words, Heath’s name only came up because Wedger mentioned him first – and Tarraga would have known what Wedger wanted to hear. The name “Uncle Teddy” is reminiscent of “Uncle Eddie”, which was the name provided by another Heath accuser, James Reeves – whom Wedger interviewed last September. Like Tarraga, Reeves was also raised and abused in care during the 1950s and 1960s, but details in his “VIP” allegations against Heath and others are contradicted by the historical record.

As with Reeves, Tarraga’s story about Heath is impossible. I have no idea what happened to him at Pin Mill, but Heath’s involvement can be ruled out. First, Heath did not take up sailing until 1966, and it took a bit of time after that before he became a “prominent” sailor. John Campbell’s biography of Heath makes this clear (pages 249-250):

Unlike music, which had been his passion from boyhood, Heath only took up sailing in middle age, a few weeks before his fiftieth birthday when he was already in the full glare of media attention as Leader of the Opposition… He began in the smallest possible way, taking lessons from an instructor whose kiosk happened to catch his attention on Broadstairs jetty in the summer of 1966. Up to that time he had done no more than mess around in a dinghy on holiday with the Seligmans in Brittany in the 1950s and at Villefranche the previous summer. In his book Sailing Heath claims that sat a boy he had always been fascinated by boats and the sea, but could never afford to do anything about it. (1)

Second, someone who has researched Heath’s movements in 1962 writes that “Heath was out of UK for all but 7 days late June-mid Sept 1962. Those 7 days accounted for. He was negotiating UK entry to Common Market so well covered in media.”

It is also unclear why Tarraga did not go public in 2015, during a period when various lurid claims about Heath were being published in the media, and there was even a high-profile police trawling investigation. Rather than not being believed, his story would have been lapped up uncritically.

It is not pleasant to have to contradict an abuse survivor who is currently enjoying some well-deserved validation and sympathy over a horrendous childhood – one obviously doesn’t want to pain a vulnerable adult, and to appear to have done so can have uncomfortable consequences on social media. However, no-one alive or dead should be subjected to reputational destruction based on claims that are untrue, and in this instance the evidence exonerating Heath is conclusive.

There is also a wider public interest here – false claims about “VIP abuse” not only muddy the waters for anyone who has a genuine allegation; as with the American “QAnon” conspiracy theory (which Brees has endorsed), stories about “elite paedophiles” are also weaponised by fringe political groups (and Wedger has addressed at least one such group).

Whatever way Tarraga was coaxed into re-remembering his past so that it that contradicts known facts, Wedger and Brees have exploited and humiliated him for their own ends, and this cannot pass without comment.

Footnote

1. A photo of Heath “messing around” in a rowing boat with his godson Lincoln Seligman on holiday in France in 1965 was published by the journalist Mark Watts in 2017. Watts had been led to believe that it was “taken in Jersey in 1972”, and Seligman, viewed from the rear, was not identified. The implication was that this was photographic evidence of Heath’s supposed association with teenage boys on the island, in particular from the Haut de la Garenne children’s care home. Although Watts had been misled, and he was afterwards censured by IMPRESS over the error, he has never explained where this false “Jersey” attribution came from.