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)


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.