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Sweeney Agonistes: Tommy Robinson Turns the Tables on the BBC

He’s no gentleman if you can’t trust him

And if you can’t trust him --

Then you never know what he’s going to do.

-- T. S. Eliot, Sweeney Agonistes

Tommy Robinson’s courageous truth-telling about Islam has not only resulted in years of harassment by the British authorities, an endless cascade of death threats, and, last year, a thoroughly unjust prison term that might have spelled his demise, but also, of course, a pattern of coverage by the mainstream media that has been almost uniformly deceitful and poisonous. When he heard that the BBC series Panorama, which is the UK’s answer to 60 Minutes, was planning a story on him with the working title “Tommy Takedown,” and that its producers were collaborating with the vile group Hope Not Hate (HNH), which is Britain’s version of the Southern Poverty Law Center -- i.e., a shady far-left smear machine masquerading as a noble monitor of bigots, fascists, and hate groups -- he decided to go on the offensive.

The key to Tommy’s plan was Lucy Brown, a former employee whose job with him had ended in a shouting match. After their split, she was offered £5,000 by HNH to badmouth Tommy for a cover story, and had to contact a lawyer to prevent a major daily from falsely claiming she’d accused Tommy of sexual allegations. When Panorama reporter John Sweeney asked her to talk to him for what he promised would be a “definitive documentary” uncovering Tommy in all his “horribleness,” Brown got in touch with Tommy and agreed to wear a hidden camera when she met with Sweeney to discuss his plans.

The undercover footage of Brown’s meeting with Sweeney forms the heart of Tommy’s hour-long exposé, Panodrama, which he premiered last Saturday on a huge screen to a huge crowd in front of the BBC’s Manchester headquarters. In that footage, we see Brown meet Sweeney at a pub where, presumably in hopes of loosening her tongue, he plies her with various kinds of liquor, including champagne, gin, red wine, and brandy, for a total bar bill of £220, which he put on his BBC expense account.

Sweeney, who had promised a “definitive” takedown of Tommy, instead provided Tommy with a definitive portrait of the sleazy journalistic hack at work.

What helps make Brown’s undercover footage so riveting is the way in which Panodrama presents it. After Brown has given Tommy the video, Tommy, whom Sweeney has been nagging for weeks to do an on-camera interview, agrees to sit down with him at a site of Tommy’s choosing -- a room furnished, as it happens, with a big screen. Before Sweeney can start asking questions, Tommy, who has brought his own cameraman along, sets about interrogating Sweeney. For instance, he asks Sweeney whether he’d ever tell any interviewee what to say about Tommy. No, Sweeney assures him. Tommy then directs Sweeney’s attention to the big screen, where Sweeney can be seen in Brown’s undercover video spelling out to her in some detail the three points about Tommy that he’d like her to make during their on-camera interview. If she covers those three points, Sweeney tells her, he guarantees they’ll be included in the final cut. Indeed, he pretty much writes her a script. Sweeney also asks Brown if there’s anything she doesn’t want him to ask her on-camera, and adds: “I’m not supposed to ask this.”

So it goes again and again: Tommy poses a question; Sweeney answers it with a firm no; Tommy then shows him an undercover clip that proves him a liar. Tommy pulls all this off with the skill of a master prosecutor. Watching him do so is a delicious experience. So is watching Sweeney watching Sweeney. In the undercover footage, Sweeney comes out with all kinds of things that you know he’d never say on TV. He informs Brown that the way “to piss off a Greek” is to “start speaking Turkish.” He says that since he has his dog with him, he can’t take a taxi home because “Asian cab drivers don’t like taking dogs.” (As Tommy points out to him: “You’re doing what your channel does, blaming an entire continent” when in fact it’s Islam that has a problem with dogs.) Sweeney confides that one of his heroes is former IRA terrorist Martin McGuinness. He jokes about shooting gay people and refers to someone as a “bloody woofter” -- cockney rhyming slang for “poofter.”

There’s also a good deal of nasty stuff about the lower classes. “I have more in common with Tommy than most reporters,” Sweeney says. “A scumbag Irish background.” He says that it’s so rare to encounter a working-class white male in the green room of BBC’s Newsnight that it’s like running across “a cannibal from the Amazonia.” And he observes that in today’s Labour Party, it’s more common than it used to be to hear “accents like yours and mine” -- i.e., middle-class establishment accents -- “rather than Tommy’s.”

Then there’s the HNH angle. Tommy asks Sweeney if HNH is working with him on this documentary. Sweeney says no -- whereupon Tommy shows Sweeney a screen capture of a text message in which an HNH official claims that HNH is, in fact, “steering” Panorama‘s Tommy program. Tommy asks Sweeney if he’s aware of the use of threats to pressure former colleagues of Tommy to trash-talk him. No, says Sweeney -- whereupon Tommy provides testimony by two former colleagues, Caolan Robertson and George Llewelyn John, to the effect that HNH had bullied them into submitting to an interview for the Panorama program, that an HNH official had been present during their interview with Sweeney, and that that official had pressured Robertson to open up further, whereupon, feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the situation, Robertson and Llewelyn John had backed out of the interview.

If the BBC is actually in bed with HNH, that’s big news -- especially if HNH made threats or engaged in blackmail on behalf of the Beeb. But this is, alas, where Panodrama falters. There are references to “indecent images” sent to Robertson as part of the alleged HNH blackmail attempt, and to an purported sexual assault on Robertson by an HNH operative -- all of it sensational, if true. But no hard evidence of any of this is forthcoming. In contrast to the neatly systematic presentation of the undercover footage, moreover, the material concerning Robertson and Llewelyn John is served up in a rather rushed and confusing manner. Their claim is apparently that HNH, in cahoots with labor-union leaders and national-security officials, threatened to sue them for inciting the June 19, 2017, Finsbury Park mosque attack by Darren Osborne; but this narrative doesn’t come across very clearly. Also included in Panodrama is a brief conversation between Tommy and a young man named Tom Dupre, who says that after he posted critical comments online about Islam and immigration, HNH went after him aggressively until it succeeded in getting him fired from his bank job. But Dupre doesn’t provide definitive documentation of his charge, either.

Not that I would put anything past HNH. They’re a loathsome group. These are the people who, around the time that Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik went on trial, issued a “Counter-Jihad Report” that was intended to depict decent critics of Islam as having influenced Breivik. It was also HNH that engineered the ban of Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller from the UK. That’s how powerful HNH is. Its falsehoods are routinely spread by the British media and routinely acted upon by the British government. HNH members are invited to schools across the UK to preach their propaganda to children. I would love to see Tommy take HNH down once and for all -- yet so far he doesn’t seem to have the goods on them.

But no matter. There’s always tomorrow. And meanwhile Panodrama accomplished something terrific: It showed BBC headliner John Sweeney up for the manipulative, dishonest operator that he is. After Tommy has finished showing him Brown’s undercover footage, Sweeney feebly insists that he’s not anti-Greek or anti-Turkish (“I have many Turkish and Greek friends”), that he’s not homophobic (his best friend from school is gay!), that he’s “proud of [his] Irish heritage,” that he’s “not a member of the establishment” (even though he described himself as such in his chat with Brown), etc., etc.

“You’re fake news,” Tommy shouts at Sweeney. “You’re a classist, elitist … You’re a liar, you’re a fraud, you’re a racist, you’re a homophobe … You were trying to destroy my life!” The accusations are as true as can be, and the spectacle of Tommy hurling them directly, eloquently, and fearlessly into the face of this befuddled BBC boob is delicious -- at once powerful and poignant, a textbook example of speaking truth to power.

There’s one thing about Panodrama that remains unclear. It was supposed to be live-streamed on Facebook during the Manchester rally, but the stream stopped dead early on. A backup YouTube stream also halted shortly thereafter. The film was switched to a new Facebook page, that feed, too, terminated mysteriously. Not until Monday afternoon, Greenwich time, was the full documentary posted on Tommy’s Facebook page. It’s now gone. In fact, on Tuesday, Tommy was banned from Facebook and his page taken down. Presumably the documentary will resurface somewhere else online. Find it and watch it. By itself, it won’t sink the BBC, but it’s a brilliant job, handsomely photographed and snappily edited -- and it is, we can hope, just the opening salvo in a long-deferred, all-out war against the British government’s fake-news empire.