NEW YORK (AFP) – Serial provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, a conservative firebrand and staunch fan of President Donald Trump, resigned on Tuesday (Feb 21) from the right-wing news site Breitbart amid a storm triggered by comments in which he seems to condone paedophilia.
The 32-year-old Briton had already lost a book deal and a speaking engagement after a video was leaked on Twitter over the weekend in which he defends men having sex with children as young as 13.
Facing the media at a news conference in New York – after a 24-hour furore he described as “humiliating” – Yiannopoulos announced he was stepping down as tech editor for the conservative US site.
“I would be wrong to allow my poor choice of words to detract from my colleagues’ important reporting,” he said, wearing a suit and black shades and reading from a prepared statement.
“So today I am resigning from Breitbart, effective immediately. This decision is mine alone.”
Though he rejects the label, Yiannopoulos is often portrayed as a leader of the “alt-right” – a white nationalist extremist fringe that found a home on Breitbart’s pages and was catapulted into American mainstream view by the political rise of the site’s former head Steve Bannon, now Trump’s powerful chief strategist.
Reviled by his critics as racist and misogynistic, Yiannopoulos casts himself as a gay crusader for free speech and against “political correctness” in all its forms – and has revelled in provoking the outrage of America’s liberal left, which accuses him of spreading hate.
Yiannopoulos is also an outspoken supporter of Trump, who he nicknames “Daddy.”
In the video that led to his resignation, Yiannopoulos is seen telling a radio host that the term paedophilia should not apply to “a sexual attraction to somebody 13 years old who is sexually mature” – only to pre-pubescent children – while calling the idea of an age of consent “arbitrary and oppressive.”
After the uproar provoked by his comments, he struck an uncharacteristically contrite tone, saying his insensitive choice of words stemmed from his own experience of abuse as a teenager.
At Tuesday’s press conference, Yiannopoulos recounted his experience, which he said included abuse by a priest, and insisted that he does not condone paedophilia.
“My own experiences as a victim led me to believe I could say anything I wanted to on this subject, no matter how outrageous.
But I understand that my usual blend of British sarcasm, provocation and gallows humour might have come across as flippancy, a lack of care for other victims or, worse, ‘advocacy,’” he said.
“I would like to restate my disgust at adults who sexually abuse minors. I am horrified by paedophilia and I have devoted large portions of my career as a journalist to exposing child abusers.
“To be a victim of child abuse and for the media to call me an apologist for child abuse is absurd,” he said.
But Yiannopoulos also struck a defiant note, presenting himself the victim of “a cynical media witchhunt” – announcing plans to launch a new media venture of his own in coming weeks, and saying his cancelled book would come out this year – with part of the proceeds donated to child abuse charities.
And he vowed: “I will never stop making jokes about taboo subjects. Go into any drag bar or gay club and you will see performers cracking jokes about clerical sexual abuse.”
Breitbart News issued a statement of its own, saying it had accepted Yiannopoulos’s resignation, and adding that his “bold voice has sparked much-needed debate on important cultural topics.”
It’s not the first time Yiannopoulos has found himself mired in controversy: he was banned from Twitter for provoking online harassment of black actress Leslie Jones in July.
The University of California at Berkeley cancelled a planned speech by Yiannopoulos this month after protests against him turned violent. Trump reacted by threatening to withhold federal funds from the university.
Yiannopoulos was to have spoken Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual meeting for conservative policymakers. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are scheduled to speak at this year’s confab.
But the invitation was withdrawn after his comments on paedophilia became public.
The publishing house Simon & Schuster said it was cancelling publication of “Dangerous,” a free speech manifesto and memoir by Yiannopoulos.