Tommy Robinson winds up bigots and the cash floods in
A former aide to the far-right figurehead reveals that his ragtag group lacks organisation but has money to burn
Tommy Robinson, the far-right leader, was bankrolled until recently by a US tech billionaire whose company’s British clients include the supermarket giant Asda.
Robert Shillman, founder and chairman of the Nasdaq-listed multinational Cognex, helped to pay Robinson’s high-five-figure salary, in the latest example of American cash flowing into the British hard right. The disclosure comes as Robinson’s former assistant, also paid by a Shillman-funded group, told The Sunday Times that the anti-Islam activist practised a form of “panto journalism” that was “leading people down a dark path”.
In the first interview by any insider, Lucy Brown, who worked closely alongside Robinson until three months ago, said: “I thought genuinely that I was joining the side that told the truth and I’ve come to realise that it’s not. It’s just about getting [YouTube] views and retweets. This is a business and your outrage, valid as it is, will be monetised as such.”
Brown, who was fired after an argument about a Muslim booked to speak at one of Robinson’s rallies, was part of an often warring inner circle that included a middle-class gay couple, international leaders of the far right, a former underwear model and Celebrity Big Brother contestant, and rougher-hewn figures from Robinson’s time as leader of the English Defence League (EDL).
She said Robinson “used to be kind of fun, but he got a bit of a diva attitude after a while and was letting more EDL figures cloud his judgment. I’ve just reread Peter Pan and there’s so many similarities. You can be around as long as you still worship him, but when you grow up, then you’re out.” Brown added that she was taking legal action over unpaid wages that she says she is owed.
Life with “Team Tommy” was chaotic, Brown said: “It was like being like a firefighter — always waiting for the next Facebook message and we’d be off to Manchester or Poland straight away, sometimes before a real plan had been drawn up. We’d be sleeping in the car and eating in service stations.”
Several of the supposed scandals that Robinson sought to expose fall down on closer examination. “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.”
Emotive YouTube and social media content bring in donations. In one recent video Robinson suggested that the deaths of three teenage boys hit by a drunk driver in Hayes, west London, in January was a terror attack “covered up” by the police and media — apparently based on the fact that the driver, who has a Hindu name, was Asian.
In a video recorded in a Muslim area of Manchester after last year’s bombing, Robinson said: “In these houses are enemy combatants who want to kill you, maim you and destroy you.”
He was freed on appeal last week after being jailed for filming people at a trial of alleged sex offenders and broadcasting the footage on a Facebook live stream. His supporters claim he was a “political prisoner” silenced by the authorities for trying to reveal the truth about Muslim sex offending.
Brown said this narrative was “whipping people up into a frenzy and I worry that some are on the cusp of acting out their frustrations against Muslims as a result. I’ve never seen this before, not in the way it’s playing out now. People are at breaking point — we must not push them further for the sake of money or fame.”
She was one of a handful of people closest to Robinson, name-checked in his videos and who saw him most days along with two other paid British staff, Caolan Robertson and George Llewelyn-John. Robertson and Llewelyn-John, who are open about their gay relationship, shared a flat in an expensive block in Chelsea, west London, before moving to Bedfordshire to be closer to Robinson.
All four, including Robinson himself, were employees of The Rebel Media, a Toronto-based far-right website, extensively funded by Shillman, which has employed a number of Britons, including the writer and former Apprentice contestant Katie Hopkins, who once described migrants as “cockroaches”.
Robinson was a “Shillman fellow” which the Rebel’s chief executive, Ezra Levant, said meant that the tech billionaire provided “support” for Robinson’s salary. Robinson was initially paid between £5,000 and £6,000 a month by The Rebel, rising to £8,000 a month, equivalent to nearly £100,000 a year, Brown said.
The three assistants were paid up to £2,500 a month each. Levant refused to confirm or deny the figures last night, saying it would not be “appropriate for me to disclose what we paid former employees”.
Shillman, 72, uses his salary and shareholding in Cognex, which he founded in 1981, to finance right-wing causes. He is on the board of the David Horowitz Freedom Centre, based in California, a “school for political warfare” against the “fifth column” and “enemy within”.
The organisation, described as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre, based in Alabama, also employs Robert Spencer, an anti-Muslim polemicist banned from the UK. Cognex, which makes advanced scanners and sensors, has a substantial operation in Britain. UK users of its technology include Asda, Nissan and the drug giant AstraZeneca.
Shillman and Cognex did not respond to requests for comment.
Robinson and the others left The Rebel last year amid a row over money, with Robertson accusing Levant of profiteering by getting contributors to raise “money [The Rebel] didn’t need”.
Levant in turn accused Robertson and Llewelyn-John of “blackmail”. Both sides deny each other’s claims. Robinson’s departure from The Rebel did not much affect his income, according to Brown, with huge sums flooding in from his own crowdfunding website and the three staff employed directly by Robinson from the proceeds.
“George and Caolan would off- handedly say, oh, we’ve got £100,000 in donations now,” Brown said. “I think he’s doing OK.”
Raheem Kassam, a Robinson ally, also confirmed the figure. Joe Mulhall, of the anti-racist group Hope not Hate, believes that even £100,000 may be a substantial underestimate.
Such material has brought Robinson an affluent lifestyle, living with his wife, Jenna, and their three young children in a £500,000 house in a Bedfordshire village. The family is currently on a two-week holiday in Tenerife, the second holiday they have spent on the Canary island in the past four months.
On his earlier trip Robinson stayed part of the time with Lutz Bachmann, founder of the German racist group Pegida and a personal friend, who has a home in Tenerife.
Robertson and Llewelyn-John appear to be in conflict with older members of “Team Tommy” from EDL days including his cousin, Kevin Carroll, and his long-standing PA, Hel Gower, jostling on social media over who knows Robinson best and competing to be the first with new developments in the imprisonment saga.
A recent addition is Jasmine Lennard, a former lingerie model and a Celebrity Big Brother contestant — until axed for “Islamophobic” tweets. She describes herself on Twitter as a “close friend” of Robinson who “regularly comes round my home” and claims to have been visited by an “MI5 anti-terrorism unit” to “intimidate” her from seeing him.
Slightly older fans include the Ukip peer Lord Pearson, who took Robinson to lunch at the House of Lords in the spring and introduced him to the party’s leader, Gerard Batten. Pearson, Batten, Kassam and Levant were all thanked in Robinson’s first post-prison video.
“Robinson appears to have brought together a lot of people on the far right,” said Mulhall. “They all want a piece of the action.”
Who’s who in Team Tommy?
Former columnist, radio presenter and contestant on The Apprentice who described refugees as “cockroaches”. Now part of Robinson’s former employer, The Rebel Media.
Former Gossard bra model who was dropped from Celebrity Big Brother after being accused of Islamophobic comments and describes herself as a “close friend” of Robinson.
Founder, chairman and chief culture officer of Nasdaq-listed Cognex Corporation and bankroller of far-right figures, including Robinson, through The Rebel Media.
Films most Robinson videos, including the one that got him jailed, and said he was “getting [Robinson] into the right direction, where he can be a little bit more mainstream”.
British-born Robinson staffer, on tour in Australia and New Zealand with Canadian far-right figure Lauren Southern, whose latest booking was cancelled by the venue owner.
Head of The Rebel Media in Toronto, who styles himself “rebel commander”. He is a former Robinson employer and travelled to London to support him at the trial and ran his defence fund.