A four-year-old boy with suspected pneumonia was forced to sleep on the floor of an under-resourced, overworked NHS hospital. The image released of that boy shook voters and made them think twice about voting for the party responsible, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. But one right-wing journalist claimed she was about to expose the whole story as an elaborate stunt. That was until her “source” appeared to be nothing more than a right-wing troll farm.
A bad day for Boris Johnson
Yorkshire Evening Post journalist Daniel Sheridan was sent the picture of four-year-old Jack Williment-Barr by his mother. The shocking image of Jack sleeping on the floor of Leeds General Infirmary went viral and created a tsunami of negative press for Johnson. This was only made worse when a journalist tried to show Johnson the image, only for the PM to wrestle the phone away and shove it into his own pocket:
Tried to show @BorisJohnson the picture of Jack Williment-Barr. The 4-year-old with suspected pneumonia forced to lie on a pile of coats on the floor of a Leeds hospital.
— Joe Pike (@joepike) December 9, 2019
Read on...Support us and go ad-free
The exchange revealed a prime minister unwilling even to look at the results of his party’s policies.
Enter the bots
But soon Twitter accounts began spreading the entirely false rumour that the photo was faked by Labour activists. All the accounts began by claiming to know a member of NHS staff who had revealed the ruse:
— George Monbiot (@GeorgeMonbiot) December 10, 2019
The tweets used identical phrasing and even those without journalism training were able to grasp something was amiss:
oh my fucking god pic.twitter.com/K2oUWtY19y
— a a dril (@demarionunn) December 10, 2019
But Telegraph journalist Allison Pearson seemed slightly behind the curve. Pearson is the paper’s chief interviewer and author of such fascinating columns as If Extinction Rebellion cut the dreadlocks, they’d get their message to more people. Insightful.
Pearson claimed to be breaking this story herself:
It appears she simply regurgitated one of the tweets as fact. The troll farm activity was reported by Metro, and then broke into a full-scale fake news crisis for the Telegraph.
Daniel Sheridan took to Twitter to fight back, detailing his investigation for the Yorkshire Evening Post:
I feel the need to clarify a few things about this story after seeing some tweets/accounts doubting the basis of it… 1/ https://t.co/r9o43d5bsO
— Daniel Sheridan (@DSheridanYEP) December 9, 2019
And Leeds General Infirmary also confirmed the events happened as described:
I suppose you’ve seen this by now… pic.twitter.com/QvPrQzr8rc
— Anne 🍒 PANK (@diaryofannepank) December 10, 2019
The owner of the Facebook post that triggered the troll activity told the Guardian:
I was hacked. I am not a nurse and I certainly don’t know anyone in Leeds…I’ve had to delete everything as I have had death threats to myself and my children.
Dereliction of duty
What Pearson did here was unacceptable. She publicly accused a sick child’s family of being liars. She presented the opinions of Twitter trolls as a robust source. And she failed to do even the most cursory research to verify her claims. By doing so she (at the very least) contributed to the harassment of Jack’s family, and the owner of the original Facebook post:
Don’t normally tweet things like this, but: the Telegraph should absolutely sack Allison Pearson for bringing the paper into disrepute – she is either too stupid or too dishonest to do her job and this is far from an isolated incident https://t.co/DcxKeY6vZc
— Jon Stone (@joncstone) December 10, 2019
This is genuinely horrific. Multiple Tory trolls pose as NHS staff, copying and pasting a fake tweet word for word, and hard right hack Allison Pearson summary tweets it as fact. https://t.co/NPLkugHHs4
— Matt Thomas #JC4PM (@Trickyjabs) December 10, 2019
Desperate Allison Pearson must surely be dying of embarrassment right now. She says she's prepared a story on how the boy on the hospital floor is a staged pic, when the hospital themselves acknowledge it is real and have apologised for it. Cringe. pic.twitter.com/EkIpSK0Q0L
— AdamDidThat (@AdamDidThat) December 10, 2019
This is a failure so immense that it’s almost irrelevant whether it was wilful or an act of gross incompetence. Because either amounts to such shattering stupidity that Pearson should already have cleared her desk.
We need your help to keep speaking the truth
Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.
Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.
We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.
In return, you get:
* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop
Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.
With your help we can continue:
* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do
We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?