Chain reaction

The most confusing, most divisive and most worrying story of the election, told by the people who were right there as it unfolded

11th December 2019

It might be seven degrees outside but it’s always summer in the Yorkshire Post newsroom.

That’s because the air conditioning was clearly never designed to cope with as many reporters, salespeople, admin and IT guys as are crammed almost elbow to elbow into the fourth floor of the idealistically-named No1 Leeds building. It’s just south of the river, which Leeds residents will tell you is Holbeck, home of the country’s well-publicised first “legal” red-light district. But it’s close enough to the train station to call it the city centre. Which is what everyone who works there does.

If the first thing you notice is the tropical climate, the second thing will probably be the spectacular scenery. The walls of the office are essentially large windows — you can see for miles across Leeds. Armley Prison threatens fortress-like from a nearby hill — Victorian planners certainly knew how to intimidate — and the world-famous Elland Road stadium is just about visible among the rows of houses in south Leeds. It’s weirdly peaceful and almost poetic. And it’s easy to see why reporters feel like custodians of the turf.

Dan Sheridan has worked as a live reporter at the Yorkshire Evening Post for six months. It’s not long, especially at a newspaper where people can spend their whole careers, and his main job is responding to things as they happen. There’s been a stabbing? Sheridan’s on the scene. A local councillor posted something controversial on Facebook? Sheridan’s already got a screenshot. A vulnerable person is missing? You get the gist.

It’s not uncommon as a reporter to receive an email from a member of the public, forwarded from the newsdesk about three feet away with the words “can you see if there’s anything in this?”. That’s exactly what happened to Dan Sheridan last Wednesday.

I phoned her, did a chat and immediately contacted the hospital

It probably should be said at this point that the Yorkshire Evening Post and the Yorkshire Post are not the same paper. It’s not that hard to understand: the Yorkshire Post is essentially a Yorkshire-focussed national newspaper while the Yorkshire Evening Post is a tabloid-size paper that only covers Leeds. Laura Collins, the YEP’s editor, says there have been efforts to make the distinction clearer in the past, perhaps by changing the name of the paper to the Leeds Post, but the readers resisted it — they feel attached to the Yorkshire Evening Post.

Back to Dan Sheridan, who picks up the email from a mum whose four-year-old son, she says, was forced to sleep on the floor of A&E at Leeds General Infirmary (LGI) due to a lack of beds.

“I phoned her, did a chat and immediately contacted the hospital,” Sheridan says. The story was simple. Sarah Williment’s son Jack had been rushed to the hospital in an ambulance as his GP was concerned he had pneumonia. It was the busiest week the A&E had seen since 2016 — a situation that the British Medical Associaton had warned was coming this winter.

“[She] was obviously concerned with the state of the NHS. She wanted to make it clear throughout she had absolutely no fault with the doctors or nurses and instead ensured I praised them,” he says.

I thought it may be difficult to get an adequate response to justify running it

As plausible as this story sounded, it was only one version of events and it needed to be verified. Under UK law, journalists must seek “right of reply” from anyone criticised in a story before publication. It means if I were going to write a story that a politician secretly steals underwear from washing lines, the politician would get a chance to dispute that or clarify the story. This isn’t just about fairness, it’s about accuracy too — in the politician example, the picture I might have seen could just as easily be of the politician helping their elderly neighbour hang their washing out. It can be easy to make mistakes.

“I thought it may be difficult to get an adequate response to justify running it,” Sheridan says.

Sheridan called the hospital press officer, who made a fairly unprecedented move of confirming Williment’s version of events in full and issuing a lengthy apology to Jack’s family from Dr Yvette Oade, Chief Medical Officer at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust.

He called Williment back to confirm she’d had the apology and “secure the story” — check no other journalists were on to it — so that it could safely be held for a few days and published on the Sunday.

Sheridan isn’t working when the story goes live, instead his colleague Joe Cooper is on the live desk and he gets a call from SWNS, a news agency.

She was quite nervous and seemed taken aback even in the early stages with how much attention it was getting

The company that owns the Yorkshire Post has a syndication agreement with SWNS, which means the agency can use stories and pictures published across the newspaper group.

“I got caught in the middle basically because SWNS wanted the pictures — so I had to speak to the mum to see if she was happy to speak to them,” Cooper says.

He calls Williment, who, it turns out is also getting calls from a reporter from the Daily Mirror, who had separately managed to track her phone number down.

“She was quite nervous and seemed taken aback even in the early stages with how much attention it was getting,” Cooper adds. With Williment’s permission, he gives SWNS her phone number so that she can discuss the pictures directly with them.

Later that day, on the Yorkshire Evening Post website, the story is getting noticeably more traffic than expected. It’s election period at a time the NHS is desperately underfunded and it soon becomes clear this story means something.

In the newsroom, reporters joke that Sheridan needn’t come in next week given how many clicks his story has already had.

The next morning and the Daily Mirror has dedicated its front page splash to the picture of Jack. At this point, it’s looking like a bad day for the Tories but things are about to get worse… and much more bizarre.

Later that same morning, nearby in Grimsby, Joe Pike gets a chance to interview Boris Johnson. In the video he later tweets, which has since had more than 11 million views at the time of writing, the political correspondent for Calendar, which is Yorkshire and the Humber’s local ITV news programme, asks the Prime Minister if he’s seen the pictures of Jack on the floor of the hospital and hold out a picture on his mobile phone.

Perhaps startled by the question, especially as the Conservative Party have an incredibly poor record on the NHS, Johnson flounders. He’s unable to get any coherent words out. He won’t respond to the question directly and is almost submissive in attempting to say anything at all, allowing Pike to talk over him.

Despite this, there’s nothing particularly out of the ordinary in the interview until the reporter mentions Johnson has taken his phone and slipped it into his pocket to avoid looking at the picture, a sly move that happens off-camera.

Pike says he’s not able to talk about the interview, though he’s had a lot of requests. ITV would prefer the clip speak for itself, though the company does not come back to me with any clarification on what that means.

The video is shared thousands of times, buoyed by the “Boris doesn’t care” message, and it’s not looking good for Johnson, who appears weak and cruel.

I was already a bit annoyed because Boris Johnson had been in Grimsby that morning and we knew he was coming to Grimsby but we weren’t invited

That’s when it’s reported that the Tories are planning to look again at the BBC licence fee. It’s a question conveniently asked by a member of the public in Sunderland and, for the Conservatives, a welcome change of message. Though Johnson’s critics on Twitter say it’s just a distraction, most newspapers are now talking about that instead.

That’s about when Geri Scott, the Yorkshire Post’s Westminster correspondent gets a tip-off that Matt Hancock is being dispatched to the LGI, which is what the hospital is almost always called by the people of Leeds, though from an unofficial source.

She’s just a 10-minute walk away and when she arrives, there’s nothing notable happening at all. Taking care to stay outside hospital grounds as much as possible, Scott waits. At this point, she knows her source is right because she’s seen some tweets from people who have seen Hancock at Leeds Station. About 15 minutes later, a freelancer with a camera from the BBC arrives.

I thought, right, great. This might be a chance to actually talk to someone about this about what’s going on

“I was already a bit annoyed because Boris Johnson had been in Grimsby that morning and we knew he was coming to Grimsby but we weren’t invited — we were told there was no time for us to ask any questions. If you come to an area then the press should be allowed to question you,” she says. “So I thought, right, great. This might be a chance to actually talk to someone about this about what’s going on.”

Shortly after, another camera arrived and set up across the road. By that time, Scott had found out Hancock was already inside and doing an interview with Look North, the BBC’s regional news programme.

“Which, again I thought was a bit off considering it was us that broke the story, that spoke to Jack’s mum. So not only did Matt Hancock not tell us he was coming, he then didn’t speak to us.”

Any claims that hundreds of people were bussed in is wrong

Meanwhile, on Twitter, journalists who are not at the scene are speculating about what’s going on. Senior journalists like BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg and ITV political correspondent Paul Brand say the Conservatives have told them Labour activists have offered to pay for taxis for anyone who can go to protest outside the hospital.

By that time, some activists have arrived. Scott estimates there are less than ten — the videos that emerge later back that up — and she speaks to four of them. Some of them are Labour Party members but none of them have been taxied in, they say. They just work nearby — the LGI is a city centre hospital — and saw on social media that Hancock is there. “Any claims that hundreds of people were bussed in is wrong,” Scott says, referring to a story that appeared on the website Guido Fawkes, making such a claim.

Hancock emerges from the hospital a short time later. He’s on the phone — or pretending to be, Scott adds — and doesn’t speak to anyone.

She and the other journalists hang around for a few minutes talking to the people who are left. Then an odd thing happens: they see credible journalists and news organisations on Twitter saying someone has been punched and the police are on the scene.

The reports are puzzled — there’s no way an attack happened, there. With so few people, they would have seen it. They look back over the videos they’ve taken and realise that at one point, a man with a bicycle in a high vis jacket waves his hand and the special advisor walks into it. They realise that must be the “punch”.

“So there was no punch but by that point, it was too late, it had been tweeted,” she says.

Scott goes back to the office to file an article and calls the West Yorkshire Police to see if there had been any reports of a punch, which there hasn’t.

“It was just a weird day.”

Meanwhile, on Twitter, videos are starting to emerge of the incident, showing very clearly that nobody had been punched and that the reports were based on blatant, transparent lies. Kuenssberg and Robert Peston, ITV’s political editor, who had both falsely reported that a Labour activist had punched a Tory advisor, correct themselves.

It takes some time for the reporters to delete the tweets and take down the stories.

Both Kuenssberg and Peston have more than a million followers and there is a visible outpouring of frustration at the slapdash approach and the lack of any verification of the story — especially where organisations had journalists on the ground. There are accusations that the senior journalists are willing participants of the Conservative election propaganda machine, though there’s no evidence that’s the case.

“I don’t think they were consciously sharing false information,” says journalist and campaigner Abi Wilkinson, who had watched the scene unfold.

“I think a culture has developed where all Labour claims are treated with extreme suspicion (see the perfectly reasonable tree planting policy for example, which is in line with what’s been achieved in other countries) whereas Tory statements are accepted at face value.”

I think it’s a major, major problem for democracy when trust in one of the few respected sources of information is being (reasonably!) eroded

She says the reason Jeremy Corbyn is often treated with scepticism is that he’s viewed as not legitimate. “But I’m not sure why Conservative claims are treated so credulously when there’s such a pattern of blatant lying that has developed. Maybe it’s a social circle thing, the people briefing them are people they drink and attend dinner parties with?

“I think it’s a major, major problem for democracy when trust in one of the few respected sources of information is being (reasonably!) eroded. Trying to find out the truth about UK political stories has become a really difficult task, even for people who have the time and are very politically engaged.”

One of the biggest issues, after a number of mistakes that have benefitted Johnson and the Conservatives, is that the BBC is no longer seen as a credible and impartial source of news by large swathes of the electorate. This was demonstrated when much of the online conversation around the false “punching” story focussed on Kuenssberg, who is regularly criticised for her closeness to Johnson’s camp and the wider Tory party.

It’s not only online trolls who have attacked the BBC, increasingly, reputable journalists and those not too far from the “establishment” are also prepared the criticise the organisation’s coverage. Wilkinson thinks the events of this election might be difficult for the BBC to come back from.

“I don’t really know if the BBC current affairs department can undo the reputational damage. It would need a big mea culpa and an internal investigation into what’s going wrong, at the very least, but I don’t see that happening,” she adds.

Unfortunately, it’s not only wayward journalists that the truth has to fight against. Social media in itself — particularly Facebook, where posts can be shared among millions of people before being proven as false — is a dangerous hurdle. 

A few fake tweets taken on board by an unwary influencer are enough to seed the disinformation into the social media sphere

It becomes clear as people are debating the BBC that there’s arguably worse misinformation out there, that’s been brewing for two days across social media. And now many believe the Yorkshire Evening Post’s story was faked.

One particular post is incredibly effective, which claims to be from someone whose “good friend” worked at the hospital and that the photograph is staged. The woman who originated the post was tracked down and claims her account was hacked, that the post isn’t true and she knows nothing about it.

By the time it was debunked though, it had been shared thousands of times from different accounts and is still on Facebook now as it’s virtually impossible to remove.

Those who actually work in the NHS are not so easily misled but those who don’t have a connection to it at all can be quickly swept up in the conspiracy.

Marc Owen Jones, a digital humanities professor who investigated how the false claims spread says it’s definitely coordinated as the same content was being copied and pasted. It was probably only a few hundred accounts, he says, but that’s all it takes.

“However, it only has to take hold among a small group of people for them to reproduce the knowledge. That’s when it’s the most effective,” he says.

“It is crude, but it doesn’t need to be sophisticated. A few fake tweets taken on board by an unwary influencer are enough to seed the disinformation into the social media sphere.

“There comes a point where it takes on a life of its own.”

If they hacked the woman’s account, they broke the law, which raises the stakes

These posts “tap into people’s pre-existing partisanship” and the effectiveness comes from the fact that it only takes a relatively small artificial “push” for things to gain traction.

Jones adds that it’s likely it came from a political or campaign group.

“If they hacked the woman’s account, they broke the law, which raises the stakes,” he adds.

Some people shout ‘fake news’ at any story they see that they don’t agree with

FullFact’s Rachael Krishna agrees that existing biases play a huge part in the pervasiveness of these fake posts.

“I think all of us can say that we are drawn to things that confirm our previously-held beliefs. We are living in a very polarised and emotional time, and misinformation thrives in that,” she says.

“It’s why we think people should always ask themselves how content makes them feel online – the individuals and organisations behind bad information know if they wind us up we’re more likely to share with others.”

The LGI story is interesting in that the ‘debunk’ – the thing useful to confirm the story as real – was in the original YEP story

Krishna says FullFact has had more visitors this election than any other.

“People want to get the facts behind claims they’ve seen or heard online. Unfortunately, this means some people also shout ‘fake news’ at any story they see that they don’t agree with, but more generally it means people are asking questions and being cautious, which is good.”

The independent fact checker analysed the original story in detail and found much of the problem was not with the original story but with the image of Jack sleeping on the floor in isolation.

“The LGI story is interesting in that the ‘debunk’ – the thing useful to confirm the story as real – was in the original YEP story. The hospital admitted it happened.

“From what we can see, what happened was the photo was taken from the article and removed from its context. People just saw a photo with no information behind it, and didn’t believe it.”

This tallies with the reaction Dan Sheridan has had to the original story, which he describes as “unbelievable”. Though he has had negativity, he estimates it makes up less than 5% of the feedback. 

“In general, the overall response has been overwhelmingly positive in terms of the value of local news reporting, done accurately,” he adds.

Krishna says: “Always ask or look for a source before you share something, and just because someone can link to a website, doesn’t mean that’s good sourcing — look for publications with a good reputation, which tell you how they got their information.”

“A ‘mate’ or ‘I heard from a friend’ isn’t sourcing.”

That account has now disappeared. Our accounts are still here and you can hold me and my journalists to account

This is something echoed by James Mitchinson, the Yorkshire Post’s editor. He publicly shared his response to a reader called Margaret yesterday who said she was no longer buying the paper due to it publishing “false information”, which she’d seen on Facebook.

In the response, which he wrote with “freezing thumbs” on his morning dog walk, Mitchinson says: “I am not surprised you have been misled by that post. But, if you’ll bear with me, I offer you this: That account has now disappeared. Our accounts are still here and you can hold me and my journalists to account.”

It seems to be well received by people who are looking for a sanctuary from all this bullshit we’ve had

He adds: “Margaret, it may well be that those who will benefit the most by breaking the bond of trust you have with the likes of The Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post have already won, but I urge you to consider which news source you can get in touch with. Who is willing to look you in the eye and tell you they did their best to get it right versus those who pop up on Facebook, spout something so compelling that others share it, and with that undermine the truth and discombobulate decent citizens.”

Mitchinson speaks to me as this is happening, late on Tuesday afternoon, on his drive between two meetings.

“When I got into the office, I read it back and I thought to myself, do you know what, it’s very very unlikely that there’s only one Margaret in the world, who has had their confidence knocked by what they can and can’t believe,” he explains.

He had never expected it to get any significant reaction. 

Mitchinson’s tweet has had nearly 10,000 retweets and Twitter analytics shows it’s reached more than 2.8 million accounts. By the time I speak to him, he’s already been on LBC with James O’Brien and later will speak about it on BBC Radio 4.

The letter is published with the headline: ‘Do not believe a stranger on social media who disappears into the night’ – An open letter from our editor to you.

“It seems to be well received by people who are looking for a sanctuary from all this bullshit we’ve had,” he says.

It’s the most basic level of journalism but people aren’t doing that

“I’d like to think the recognition bestowed upon the Yorkshire Post by PAMco of Britain’s most trusted newspaper is a recognition of our determination to hold firm on quality. Not everyone else is doing that. So it doesn’t surprise me that the general public, when talking about journalists, think we all piss in the same pot. We’re all the same. It’s very, very difficult to cut through that.

“So what did Margaret say? She thanked me and the tone of her response was quite contrite. But she asked if we could do more to get to the facts.”

He says what Sheridan did with the story was nothing special, it was “bog standard journalism” and “it should be the lowest we set the bar”.

“It’s the most basic level of journalism but people aren’t doing that,” he adds.

Both Mitchinson and Krishna say the politicisation of the story is what caused it to blow up. The Daily Mirror’s version was literally held up by Corbyn at a rally and Labour activists have used it as evidence that the NHS is being mismanaged, which is what caused such a virulent backlash.

Everyone [in the NHS] is so burnt out that nobody’s an activist

While there’s a case to be made for keeping politics out of these sensitive issues, a nurse who works at the LGI thinks the two are inseparable.

“Everyone [in the NHS] is so burnt out that nobody’s an activist,” she sighs.

“Everyone is so passionate about it but they’ve drilled the mentality out of you that you can change things. Day in day out you’re surrounded by the consequences of cuts and you’re helpless.”

She says these stories simply are politics — they’re caused by political decisions.

“I know I’ve chosen it but the reason I’m doing it is that I want to help people. You sacrifice so much of your life and yourself and it feels like [the government] don’t sacrifice anything at all.”

Today as this article goes online, Boris Johnson is in Leeds. It’s hard to say whether this story is over at this point but Johnson’s presence indicates it’s not. He’ll be visiting the marginal seat of Pudsey, where I lived 19 years of my life. It was held by Labour until 2010, when Conservative candidate Stuart Andrew became MP. Perhaps Johnson is worried about that seat. I doubt he needs to be — the demographics of the constituency have changed in the last decade or so and I’d say it’s probably a Tory safe seat now. But there are no certainties. 

Tomorrow is polling day. And, as we know, a lot can happen in two days.

 

Additional reporting by Ethan Shone.

11th December 2019