Tommy Robinson gathered an estimated 4,000 supporters at Media City on Saturday as he protested against the BBC, which he accuses of spreading fake news.
The far-right activist known for his anti-Islam opinions, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, showed a film of his own which he said “exposed the BBC’s lies”.
Speakers attacked mainstream media and called the BBC “the enemy of the people”, echoing similar accusations in the US where the media has been vilified by Donald Trump.
One organiser called on Tommy Robinson’s followers not to “touch the photographers or any of the media companies” so they could report the event, but added “at least for today”, which prompted laughter from the crowd.
The BBC has confirmed it is investigating Mr Robinson for an upcoming Panorama episode, and added that the programme follows “strict editorial guidelines”.
Derek Walker, from Sheffield, who was attending Tommy Robinson’s rally, said: “I support Tommy Robinson because of the grooming gangs and I don’t like children being hurt.”
He added: “I think our government is really messing up, and I don’t like what’s happening in this country. That’s why I support him.”
Local anti-racism campaigners and trade unionists organised a counter-protest which attracted several hundred people.
Nahella Ashraf, co-chair of Greater Manchester Stand Up to Racism, said: “Today we’re out to show that we are the majority of people: we stand against racism in any form, we stand against hatred, we stand against fear, which are all the things that Tommy Robinson is spreading with his rally today.”
Paul Jenkins, North West Organiser for Unite Against Fascism, said: “We think it’s vital that wherever any fascist organisation tries to build a movement, we have people come out to oppose him, to show that anti-racism is the majority, and that his fascism will not be tolerated in Salford, or anywhere else.”
He added: “We’re also concerned that Robinson’s made an attempt to link up with the mainstream right, in the form of UKIP. But it’s also interesting that that has been a step too far even for some ex-leading UKIP figures, such as Nigel Farage.”
Tommy Robinson and his supporters deny they are racist or fascist.
Mr Walker said: “I don’t think Tommy Robinson is racist at all. I just think he’s pointed out to people about the grooming gangs… and he’s brought it to light, so I don’t think he’s racist, he’s just really looking after children in this country.”
Tommy Robinson is a former member of the British National Party and a founder of the English Defence League. He also established Pegida UK, an anti-Islam group. He was banned from Twitter in March for breaking its ‘hateful conduct’ policy.
Among the crowd, supporters were waving the Union Jack, St George’s Cross and the Lion Rampant, as well as UKIP, “For Britain” and many “Generation Identity” flags.
Generation Identity is a far-right faction that originated in France. The group has taken actions such as “anti-migrant patrols” in the Alps, and in 2017 it sailed a ship in the Mediterranean to deter NGOs from rescuing migrants at sea.
Ms Ashraf said: “I think there is a real threat from the far-right growing, not just here in this country but across Europe. You’re seeing that they’re are getting organised, they’re linking up.”
A coordinator of Tommy Robinson’s rally refused to speak to Salford Now, arguing that previous stories published on the website were “twisting the truth”.
One of Tommy Robinson’s supporters, who is from Salford, agreed to speak to Salford Now but did not wish to be identified. He said: “I’ve just heard from one of my commanders that you twist the stories when you put that up online and you don’t tell the truth.
“You do twist it and make us out to be the bad ones, and we’re not the bad ones. They’re the bad ones,” he said, pointing to anti-racism protesters.
“When we do something, they’re always here. They’re horrible people. And we’re here, to get our country back to how it was in the 70s and 80s.”
Trade unionists were also protesting against Tommy Robinson. Steven North, Salford City Unison branch secretary, said: “This sort of division, this provocative stuff that people like Robinson bring, isn’t going to do us any good.
“They turn up now and again, the far right. They try and cause division, they try and pit people against each other.
“Most Salford people know that that doesn’t make any sense, that that’s not the way forward, so I’m proud today to be here representing my union to say so.”
A growing far right movement
Paul Jenkins, from Unite Against Fascism, noted: “Wherever fascists like Tommy Robinson try to organise, there is an increase of racist attacks, often before or after the demonstrations that they hold.”
“At the moment, I am concerned that there has been a rise in racist attacks, anti-semitism and Islamophobia, and across Europe we see the growth of the far-right, fascist organisations. So there’s a rise of it, across Europe, including in this country. But we can beat it.”
Salford and Eccles MP Rebecca Long-Bailey and Salford Mayor Paul Dennett last week said the city had a problem with racism following the arrest of a man in connection with a racist graffiti attack on a home in Salford.
Nahella Ashraf, from Stand Up to Racism, said: “I think [the Robinson protesters] are being opportunist. They see the austerity, they see the crisis, they see the Tory government attacking migrants, refugees, immigrants, people on welfare, on benefits.
“The far right have latched onto this, and used it as an opportunity to push that message even further.
“I think there are people that are looking at what’s happening and they’re really fearful. For the first time, you have a generation that doesn’t believe that the next generation is going to have the opportunities that we had.
“Because of that, they are looking for an alternative, and unfortunately Tommy Robinson is out there being quite loud and drawing people in.
“But I think we need a real opposition in this country that will stand up and defend working-class people. We need resistance to this Tory Government. And we need to show people that there is another way of fighting the Tories and the cuts to the welfare state than joining the far-right.”
Attacks on the media
Mr Robinson focussed his criticism on mainstream media, which he calls corrupt, and called on his supporters to stop paying the BBC licence fee.
Supporter Mr Walker said: “BBC are fake news, that’s why he’s attacking them. And they put a lot of fake news out and he’s proving to us that it’s fake news.
“I think people want to get rid of the TV licence, they don’t want to pay it, and they’re realising it’s fake news throughout the country.”
The BBC is the most consumed news media in the country – and the most trusted source of news in the UK – according to the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report.
In 2018, 64 percent of people said they consumed BBC news on radio or TV at least weekly (ITV comes a distant second with 33 percent).
In a statement issued before the event, the National Union of Journalists, said: “The National Union of Journalists and BECTU, unions which represent BBC staff at Media City, Salford, roundly condemn Tommy Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon” and his supporters “who intend to intimidate staff at the corporation, particularly those working on Panorama.”
It continued: “The NUJ and BECTU say BBC staff should be free to do their jobs without these threats. Intimidation, threats and violence carried out by far-right protesters systematically targeting the media, especially photojournalists, are becoming more frequent and we will always call out this behaviour and report criminal activity to the police.”