Conservative misinformation campaign in week of election
Friday 13th December 2019 | Jake
The satirist Jonathan Swift once said that "falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it."
The mobilisation of myth and untruths have been a reliable technique in manipulating political discourse for centuries. This week saw perhaps the most sinister utilisation of deceit by a political party of the general election campaign.
Earlier in the week Boris Johnson was under immense pressure. His government had been called out for nine years of austerity critically damaging the NHS. This severe underfunding and breaking of promises culminated in Jack Willment-Barr having to receive medical attention at Leeds General Infirmary lying on the floor, as there was no other space available. A picture of the child was punlished by the Mirror, and the Yorkshire Post confirmed the story. The government and wider media’s reaction to this disaster was shocking.
Firstly Johnson was confronted with the image by the ITV journalist Joe Pike. Johnson, unwilling to dignify the image with a proper response, snatched Pike’s phone and kept it in his pocket for the rest of the interview. Meanwhile, back in Leeds, Health Secretary Matt Hancock was ordered to Leeds General Infirmary to minimise a potential PR disaster. A handful of people confronted him and demanded better from the government. One man was seen shouting and pointing at Hancock as he was shepherded away in a car. A Tory adviser walked into the man’s arms as he thrust accusing fingers at Hancock’s car, as seen on footage uploaded to the internet after the event.
ITV's Joe Pike interviews Boris Johnson
Spin went into overdrive. An innocuous collision was dressed up as an assault by the Tory press team, with ‘Tory sources’ words being regurgitated by BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg and ITV political editor Robert Peston on Twitter. With millions of followers between them, the pair were played and readily repeated the Tory party line.
The Conservative press team would’ve most likely gotten away with it, were it not for the footage of the incident to be released almost immediately after Kuenssberg, Peston and many others repeated the punch fabrication. The pair eventually apologised, but the story had successfully distracted from the real story. The NHS’s plight and the catastrophic situation 4-year-old Jack Willment-Barr found himself in.
The misinformation campaign was only just getting started, however. Bots on twitter spread a tweet purporting to reveal the image of Willment-Barr on the hospital floor was staged. Numerous sites recycled the claim, which referred to a paediatric nurse who could prove the picture was a setup. The hoax was disproved by Leeds General Infirmary’s own chief medical officer, Dr Yvette Oade. Oade apologised for the hospital’s conditions, confirming there were no beds immediately available for treatment.