Breitbart: The web that connects Trump and Farage

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Nigel Farage and Donald TrumpImage source, AP

A once-fringe online news site has deep connections with Donald Trump and the UK Independence Party. So what's the story behind Breitbart?

Just days after the US election, an ebullient Nigel Farage made his way to Trump Tower in New York - the first British politician to meet the president-elect.

"We're just tourists!" Farage joked to waiting reporters.

By his side was his former aide and the London editor of Breitbart News, Raheem Kassam. And Kassam's ultimate boss, Stephen Bannon, has been lined up for a top White House job as Trump's chief strategist.

Key figures at Breitbart News - a fast-growing conservative website that has been condemned by some commentators as racist and misogynist - are connected with both the Trump campaign and with the UK Independence Party.

The White House was probably a distant dream when conservative entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart launched in 2007. It built on his earlier work for online outlets such as the conservative Drudge Report and liberal Huffington Post, along with an early iteration of his eponymous site which collected news links.

The site first gained notoriety with videos targeting liberal groups and politicians. In 2011, it scored a major scoop when it exposed former Democratic congressman Anthony Wiener's sexting scandal.

In 2012, Andrew Breitbart died of heart failure. Bannon became executive chairman.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Andrew Breitbart in 2009

"The site used to be a hard-hitting, no-holds-barred conservative website that held liberals to account and resisted political correctness," says Jesse Singal, a writer-at-large with New York Magazine who's tussled with Breitbart in the past.

"They've turned much more extreme since Andrew Breitbart died."

From its base in California, the site has expanded, opening bureaus in Texas, Jerusalem and, in 2014, London.

"We look at London and Texas as two fronts in our current cultural and political war," Bannon said at the time.

At the outset of the marathon US election campaign, the site initially seemed to back Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

But a key moment came in March when Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields was grabbed by Corey Lewandowski, Trump's then campaign manager. Charges were filed but later dropped. After Fields was criticised - and Lewandowski defended - by some of her Breitbart colleagues, there were several resignations from the website.

In August, Bannon was picked to lead Trump's campaign. It was a sign of the site's influence.

Patrick Howley, a former Breitbart reporter whose beat was the Hillary Clinton campaign, says the site doesn't pretend to balance all sides of an issue.

"The ethic of objectivity as it's traditionally formulated is not practised there," he says. However he defends the spin by saying the site is up-front about it. "I never made any pretence about the fact that I did not want Hillary Clinton to be president."

Future expansion targets include France and Germany.

"Their model is to identify areas where there are two ingredients, the potential to exploit or inflame racial anxieties, anti-Muslim sentiment, anti-feminist sentiment," says Angelo Carusone, executive vice president of the left-wing think tank Media Matters.

He predicts they will back the National Front in France. "The second ingredient is a political opposition force that they can align with or consume to gain legitimacy."

In Britain, Carusone says, UKIP was that force.

Breitbart timeline

2007: Andrew Breitbart starts

2011: Breitbart breaks the story of Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner's sex scandal

2012: Andrew Breitbart dies; Stephen Bannon takes over as executive chairman

2014: Breitbart opens a bureau in London

March 2016: Trump's then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski grabs Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields at a rally. The resultant controversy leads several reporters and editors to resign

August 2016: Bannon appointed Trump campaign chief executive

October 2016: Breitbart London editor Raheem Kassam launches a bid for the UKIP leadership using the slogan "Make UKIP Great Again". He later withdraws

13 November 2016: Following the election, Bannon is picked to be Trump's chief strategist

In the days since the election and Bannon's appointment, there's been a lot of coverage about the site's most provocative content, including a set of much-discussed headlines:

Image source, Breitbart
Image caption,
Selection of much-discussed Breitbart headlines

This however is just one slice of Breitbart's output, which is a hodgepodge of factual stories provided by news wires, provocative opinion designed to infuriate liberals and whip up conservatives, cheerleading for Trump and right-wing ideas, and attack pieces on celebrities, journalists and other perceived enemies.

The company produces videos, movies, radio shows and podcasts and has a huge social media presence.

It's all presented in a tabloid style - and the site has no clear delineations between news, analysis, commentary and opinion.

Speaking to BBC Newsnight, Kassam described the site's style: "Is it ugly? Yes. Is it varnished? No. But is it truthful? Absolutely."

Howley says the site's approach is straightforward. "We are honest about it," he says. "If you suspend objectivity you can build great sources and develop an audience and the information is all the same."

Howley, who says there is no written code of ethics or guidelines for Breitbart journalists, argues the site tapped into the "populist side of the conservative movement which wasn't really represented in the press". He resigned from Breitbart on election night, saying that the company had grown and changed substantially in his time there and that he was interested in other reporting projects.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Raheem Kassam during his brief campaign for the UKIP leadership

Editor-at-large Joel Pollak has denied the site is racist or sexist. The staff are "happy warriors", Pollak told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "Andrew Breitbart founded it to take on the mainstream media, to take on the institutional left and to take on the Republican Party establishment. There is in a sense a populist undercurrent in the website but that's not angry."

Over the last 18 months, Breitbart's fortunes have risen in line with Trump's.

According to web analytics company Comscore, the site has added millions of readers since Donald Trump started his run to the presidency. Its monthly US audience is now more than 19 million, which puts it ahead of many mainstream news sites.

In Britain it has a much narrower reach, even factoring in the UK's smaller population - Comscore puts its monthly unique users at under 700,000.

If you visit the site and click around, you're just as likely to find straight news ("Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he is looking forward to working with President-elect Donald Trump on 'the twin interests of peace and security'") as you are to see freewheeling pro-Trump hype ("It happened. We won! We now live in the Age of Daddy!")

In that respect, Breitbart is distinct from the "fake news" industry that received so much attention after the election. Critics note that its stories might be made up of facts, but spun and deployed hard against its main bugbears - including liberals, refugees (particularly from the Muslim world), and feminism.

The story was one of several the site ran about a small city in Idaho and Chobani, one of America's leading yogurt brands. Chobani is owned by Hamdi Ulukaya, a billionaire immigrant from Turkey. Ulukaya has ties to President Obama and has employed refugees at his plants in Idaho and elsewhere.

The story linked a rise in tuberculosis cases to the yogurt plant and refugees living locally.

But there was more to the story. The "500 percent" spike in the headline represented an increase from one case - to six. Those six cases, according to Tom Shanahan of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, were all diagnosed prior to the Chobani plant opening in December 2012.

By 2015, the number of cases was back down to just one.

Shanahan says that the Breitbart story was "misleading", that the tuberculosis spike was not statistically significant and that it could not be linked to the yogurt plant or refugees in the area.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Hamdi Ulukaya's yogurt company has found itself under fire from Breitbart

In the UK, following the EU referendum in June, several stories on the site poked holes in a reports which suggested that hate crimes had spiked by 57%.

The cause and effect around current events and hate crimes is complicated and awareness of how to report them boosts statistics. However there was no mention on Breitbart of later analysis by the Home Office which showed a 41% rise in hate crimes after the Brexit vote.

"It's a more radical Fox News. It's living in a different world, a much more fearful world, where rumour and innuendo are passed around as fact," says Singal.

Breitbart also runs sharply critical stories on other journalists and news outlets and mocks reporters who complain about trolls and slurs. "Every special snowflake reporter with a Twitter account wanted in on the sweet victimhood action," taunted one writer, criticising journalists who found themselves being shouted at by Trump supporters at campaign rallies.

Mainstream media reporters who have been the subject of Breitbart pieces have at times found themselves on the receiving end of online trolling. The BBC has spoken to several who have had rape and death threats against themselves and their families, and several from news outlets in the US and the UK said they or their colleagues have been cautious about writing about the site for fear of the resultant backlash.

There's no implication that Breitbart reporters or employees are directing the trolling or participating in it themselves. (Although one Breitbart writer, Milo Yiannopoulos, was banned from Twitter for firing off unpleasant messages to actress Leslie Jones.) And Breitbart is far from the only news source to whip its audience into action.

At the same time the company and its journalists don't hesitate to complain about alleged abuse against themselves.

Trump, UKIP, Breitbart - the players

Stephen Bannon: Breitbart's executive chairman, he left to run the Trump campaign and has been lined up for a job as senior strategist in the Trump White House. In a rare speech in 2014, he had words of praise for UKIP

Nigel Farage: The UKIP leader is a regular Breitbart columnist

Raheem Kassam: Hired by Bannon to be Breitbart's London editor, he was a chief adviser to Farage during the 2015 general election, and briefly ran for UKIP leader himself before dropping out

Robert Mercer: A Breitbart funder and investor in Cambridge Analytica, the data firm used by EU referendum Leave campaigners and the Trump campaign. His daughter, Rebekah Mercer, is part of Trump's transition team

Arron Banks: This major UKIP donor backed Kassam's leadership bid and bankrolled the Leave.EU campaign, enlisting the help of Cambridge Analytica

Raheem Kassam, the site's London editor, made a brief run for UKIP leader. After dropping out of the race, Kassam said he would pursue a harassment case against journalists from the Times, claiming they intimidated his parents in the course of writing a profile on him. The Times characterised the encounter as a "short, polite conversation with a family member" in the course of "standard reporting practice".

The site, which frequently argues in favour of free speech, has vowed to sue an unnamed media outlet for calling it a "white nationalist" website. Thus far, no legal action has commenced.

Image source, Breitbart News

Breitbart's funding sources are somewhat obscure. As a private company, Breitbart has declined to reveal its investors or how it makes money.

In 2014, before its overseas expansion, Bannon said that the site wasn't quite profitable. There are ads on the site and it also sells merchandise such as campaign coffee cups.

It has been reported that the company has been funded by Robert Mercer, a hedge-fund manager who is the founder of Cambridge Analytica, a data firm which worked for the Leave.EU campaign as well as Trump's bid for the White House.

Mercer's daughter Rebekah is part of Trump's transition team.

Another big Leave.EU backer was UKIP donor Arron Banks, who accompanied Farage and Kassam to Trump Tower.

In Washington, the big question people have been asking about Bannon is how he will act in the Trump administration, and what the role of Breitbart will be once he's there.

Prior to the election, Bannon said he would return to the company - but that was before Trump's victory and his White House appointment. Under ethics rules, Bannon has 30 days from taking office in January to declare his financial ties to Breitbart.

Kurt Bardella, a former Breitbart spokesman who resigned after the Fields incident, says in his view the site's function won't change when Trump becomes president.

"It will be the propaganda arm of the administration," he says.

"Their mandate is to create conflict, controversy and divisiveness - as well as propping up President Trump," he says.

But conservative journalist Cathy Young, who clashed with Breitbart after denouncing what she saw as the site's whitewashing of the extremist alt-right, argues that those might take a back seat to a more pragmatic political style.

"My guess would be that Bannon will be less of a champion of the alt-right than a political pit bull who will use whatever weapon he can to pursue the victory of the person he's promoting."

For his part, Farage has offered to act as a conduit between the US and the UK - a proposal that Downing Street quickly rebuffed.

Breitbart did not respond to requests to comment for this story, and several reporters and staff members also did not respond to questions.

Carusone, from Media Matters, thinks that calling Breitbart "propaganda" slightly misstates its role, and says its real function in a Trump White House could be to shore up support on the far right.

"There's been a consensus in some parts of the media that Trump is softening on some of his policies," he says. "Part of the role of Breitbart will be to give a wink and a nod to Trump's most fervent supporters to let them know he's still on their side."

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