On the election trail in 2001, Tony Blair was confronted outside Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital by a woman called Sharon Storer, angry about the care her partner was receiving. As the Guardian reported at the time, “Ms Storer collared Mr Blair as he was entering the hospital earlier this week to complain that inadequate funding had affected her partner, Keith Sedgwick, who has cancer”. GPs backed Ms Storer.
There was much news coverage of the confrontation. What there was not was a leering revelation of Ms Storer’s political affiliation, or any publication of her contact details. The reporting of politicians being confronted by ordinary people, as we saw yesterday, has changed markedly in the intervening 18 years, and not necessarily for the better.
We know this after alleged Prime Minister Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson visited Whipps Cross University Hospital in North London yesterday, and as the Guardian told readers, was “confronted by an angry father at a hospital who told him his baby daughter had nearly died because the ward on which she was treated was ‘not safe for children’ after years of austerity”. The father’s name was Omar Salem.
Salem accused Bozo of using the visit for a press opportunity. Bozo then claimed “there’s no press here”, which, as so often with our alleged PM, was not true. There was a camera crew filming the incident. The account added “Afterwards, a hospital doctor working on the ward, who was present at Johnson’s visit, backed up Salem’s account, telling the Guardian: ‘Obviously this was a totally contrived press opportunity - he was shown by far the nicest ward in the hospital’”. And it got worse.
“The Labour MP for Walthamstow, Stella Creasy, who was in the hospital at the time of the incident, echoed Salem’s concerns”. Labour’s Jon Ashworth piled in too. But the right-wing counter-attack was already in progress: the perpetually thirsty Paul Staines and his rabble at the Guido Fawkes blog discovered that Salem was a Labour activist, which was not difficult to do, because his Twitter bio says he is, er, a Labour activist.
And this is when many in the media, and mainly, to its utter shame, the BBC, not only gleefully recycled the, er, by-product from the Fawkes sewer, they jumped right in there too. It was a fact, and not a “Labour so we can discount it fact”, that Salem’s seven-day-old daughter had been gravely ill. It was a fact that the hospital was short of resources. It was a fact that Bozo The Clown had lied under pressure - again. But that no longer mattered.
Instead, the Beeb’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg Tweeted “Turns out the man who challenged the PM is also a Labour activist”. Oh well, not a problem then, eh Ms K? Quite the novel way of dealing with claims of anti-Labour bias. But then it got much, much worse, as she followed that with “This is him here”, pointing out his Twitter handle.
That’s as in pointing out his Twitter handle to her One Million Followers. In case anyone missed that, the BBC’s political editor, knowingly or otherwise, encouraged a pile-on against a bloke who nearly lost his baby daughter. The Beeb’s complaints line crashed under the weight of calls. Ms Kuenssberg was reported for targeted harassment.
The condemnation of both Ms K, and The Great Guido, was immediate. Simon Maginn responded “He's the father of a sick child. Is trying to discredit the father of a sick child one of those BBC Values I keep hearing about? Think you should delete this and apologise”.
Staines and his mob were asked “Are you suggesting his child nearly dying in hospital was just a set up so he could attack the Prime Minister who he had no idea would be visiting his daughters ward today?” The Pileus added “You guys are vile. He has a sick child and is in the hospital for his child. Furthermore his points were valid and fact he is a Labour activist is irrelevant”. Jim Felton had something to ask about this deflection.
“When you see Boris Johnson doing a shit interaction and then you dig for dirt on a man visiting a sick relative in the hospital do you feel ‘yeah I'm doing good for the world here, I'm a thoroughly decent bloke?’”. Russ had words for Ms Kuenssberg. “Oh good. Laura has found the distressed man with a very sick child who didn't want a press opportunity, and advertised his whereabouts to every troll on Twitter. Responsible journalism, meet Laura Kuenssberg. Laura, this is responsible journalism. You two should talk”.
Jim Felton returned to the fray: “We did it! We managed to turn a story about Johnson lying directly to camera about there not being any cameras into a dogpile on a worried man visiting his his sick kid in hospital! Good job everybody!” And Sean O’Neill, who is chief reporter at the Murdoch Times, concluded “Journalism is vital, it does hell of a lot of good, but there are days when I am utterly ashamed of some of the behaviour in my trade”.
It was bad enough for the BBC, but then it got worse still: Rob Burley, their editor of live political programmes, and someone many of us have a lot of time for, misread the situation horribly. “Those attacking Laura K for mentioning that the man arguing with Boris Johnson was a Labour activist need to do a thought experiment: would they think relevant if the politician were Jeremy Corbyn and the member of the public a Tory activist, however sincere? Of course”. Why, though? Remember Sharon Storer.
But he wasn’t finished. “The information about their political views would be part of the picture and it’s perfectly proper for journalists to provide that information. It’s not a judgement on the person’s sincerity or argument but a fact”. No it’s not. It really isn’t. A sick child is not a Tory or Labour sick child, but a sick child period.
Worse, Burley misses Ms Kuenssberg identifying Salem to her - note that number again - One Million Followers, enabling a pile-on. And worse still, as Simon Vessey noted, is the inexcusable closeness of the BBC and the Fawkes rabble: “Why is it acceptable that the BBC regularly use fascist gutter blog Guido Fawkes as a source? They are promoted on the BBC platform along with [Tom] Harwood, one of their nastiest employees. Why?”
I wouldn’t use that F-Word to describe The Great Guido, but the point stands. Harwood was the author of the Fawkes hit job which identified Salem as a Labour activist. He might look convincing in front of the camera, but he is a congenital liar, and as to political objectivity - forget it. The BBC, through admitting people like that to its fold, has jumped in the sewer with Staines and the vicious, nihilistic right-wing. And it has to stop.
We cannot have a situation where the Corporation’s political editor precipitates a pile-on against someone whose seven-day-old daughter nearly died, and another of its staff tries to justify the whole sorry mess. This is not journalism. This is inexcusable.
The BBC must stop excuse making, and start taking action. As in corrective action.
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