Donald Trump’s former chief adviser and ex-Breitbart head Steve Bannon met in private with three directors of Britain’s Catholic Herald magazine to give them advice on making connections with “Catholic influencers and millionaires”, according to sources.
The meeting took place at Bannon’s “Breitbart embassy” in Washington, DC, in November last year and involved three members of the board of the conservative magazine: the publication’s part-owner, luxury hotelier and hard Brexiteer Rocco Forte; disgraced former Conservative MP Brooks Newmark; and the magazine’s editor-in-chief Damian Thompson.
Multiple sources with knowledge of the meeting said the team of three from the Herald fielded advice from Bannon, who is Catholic himself, ahead of the magazine’s move to launch a US-specific publication.
One source told BuzzFeed News that Bannon said the Herald should try to become America’s “Catholic-version of the Spectator” — Britain’s weekly conservative political magazine — and to do that the magazine should make connections with “Catholic influencers and millionaires”.
One of Bannon’s ideas, according to two sources, was for the magazine to focus on lists, like publishing “the 25 most influential Catholics” in different fields and industries in the United States.
In a statement, the Catholic Herald’s managing director Andy Leisinger defended the talks with Bannon.
“The Herald meeting in DC with Steve Bannon was part of a wide range of meetings set up with American Catholics from both liberal and conservative backgrounds to gather intelligence for our forthcoming list of top US Catholic Politicos,” Leisinger said. “This will include influential Catholic politicians from left and right, such as liberal House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. We have spoken to dozens of prominent politicos including non-Catholics. This list is being published in January.”
The magazine distanced itself from any of Bannon’s previous comments.
“For the record we do not in any way endorse anything Bannon may have said at any time and regards his views as his own,” the statement read. “Like the BBC and many media outlets who have met with Mr Bannon we are naturally interested in hearing a wide range of US Catholic views from differing sides of the liberal/conservative consensus.”
On the same American trip as the Bannon meeting, the Catholic Herald held launch parties in Washington and New York, marking the opening of a weekly US version of the British magazine. The New York Post’s Page Six covered the New York launch under the headline “Catholic Herald magazine launches in NYC with swanky lunch”, accompanied by a picture of part-owner Forte.
Founded in 1888, the Catholic Herald is widely recognised as a conservative voice in the relatively small, but influential, landscape of religious media publications in the UK. Several board members have strong links to the Conservative party and pro-Brexit causes.
According to company records, the two current major stakeholders in the magazine are Forte and the disgraced Canadian-born media baron Conrad Black, a former Tory peer.
Forte had a headline spot at the hard-Brexiteer “Leave Means Leave” rally in London earlier this month alongside former UKIP leader Nigel Farage. The chair of the magazine’s board is William Cash Jr — a former UKIP candidate and the son of Tory MP and top Brexiteer Bill Cash.
One veteran religious journalist said the Catholic Herald’s meeting with Bannon should be understood in the wider context of hostility to Pope Francis among some Catholics, who view him as too liberal on social questions to do with the religion.
“It should not surprise anyone that the Catholic Herald would associate themselves with Bannon,” said the journalist. “They think the current Pope is weak, too liberal.
“They see it as their holy mission to take him on.”
Speaking over the phone to BuzzFeed News, Bannon said he envisaged the Catholic Herald taking the place of recent conservative US publications that had shut. He also said the magazine’s co-owner was defending the “Judeo-Christian West”.
“I met with Rocco and his team at the Breitbart Embassy in DC,” Bannon told BuzzFeed News, using a nickname for the right-wing website's Capitol Hill HQ. “The US version of the Catholic Herald can have a massive impact, especially with the demise of the Weekly Standard and other conservative periodicals.
“These are sophisticated people with a sophisticated publication if they follow the lead of the Spectator with their American edition. The defense of the Judeo-Christian West starts people like Rocco taking bold action like this.”
Weeks before the Washington meeting with the directors of the Catholic Herald, Bannon was also in London, staying in the luxurious Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair.
The five-star hotel near Buckingham Palace is one of the properties owned by Forte.
Answering questions on behalf of Forte, the Catholic Herald said he “had no prior knowledge” of Bannon’s stay at his London hotel just days before the two met in Washington.
“Sir Rocco Forte had no prior knowledge of Steve Bannon ever staying at Brown's Hotel and Bannon paid in full as a normal client,” the Herald’s Andy Leisinger said in a statement.
“He had no contact with Rocco or his office in regards to the hotel stay. Bannon was just a regular hotel client choosing to stay at the hotel.”
Whether the Catholic Herald took any inspiration from Bannon, or his advice to become the “Catholic Spectator”, is unclear.
Following the meeting, however, a column written by a regular Spectator contributor Panagiotis Theodoracopulos — a right-wing author known by the byline “Taki” — was published in the magazine’s Christmas edition and stoked outrage among readers.
Theodoracopulos has been widely condemned for previous work, including one column defending the Greek fascist group Golden Dawn.
Taki’s column in the US Catholic Herald, titled “The devout princess and the malignant grey lady”, addressed a recent New York Times profile of American Catholic Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis. It began by accusing the New York Times of hating “heterosexual white men” and Catholics, before claiming the newspaper had downplayed “child molestation” in the Jewish Hasidic community because its readers were Jewish.
“The New York Times is an American institution, but also a malignant and subversive influence among the rich New Yorkers who follow its message,” Taki wrote. “The Times’s pet hates are heterosexual white men, Christians in general and Catholics in particular.
“The Catholic Church’s sexual scandals are manna from heaven for the Times, a paper that downplays child molestation which has been rife among the Hasidic community in view of the fact that a sizeable part of its readership is Jewish.”
Some of the magazine’s British readers expressed disgust at the piece after it was published online, labelling it anti-Semitic. The Herald would also later publish a reply — “Why Taki’s views disgust me”.
“He won’t be writing any more for us,” one senior Herald source said.
After BuzzFeed News questioned a senior member of the Catholic Herald staff earlier this month, Taki’s column was taken offline completely.
Mark Di Stefano is a media and politics correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Mark Di Stefano at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.