Jonathan Ames and Fake News: “Student Investigated for Mocking ISIS” Claim Unravels

Incident is the second time this year Ames has promoted untrue claims by a law student with a grudge

From Jonathan Ames, legal affairs reporter at The Times, 5 September:

Edinburgh University is investigating a law student over claims that he mocked Islamic State on social media and put “minority students at risk and in a state of panic and fear”.

An official at the university who conducted a preliminary investigation allegedly accused the third-year law student of having committed a “hate crime” even though there has been no criminal investigation by the police.

The law student says that the complaint against him came in retaliation after he highlighted that a former leader of an ethnic minority student group at the university had referred to black men as “trash”.

A follow-up a few days later announced that the student – one Robbie Travers – had been “cleared”.

Many derivative articles appeared on other media sites in the wake of the Times articles; however, a couple of outlets (Scotland’s National newspaper and Buzzfeed) noted that Edinburgh University was disputing the basis for the investigation, while Ivo Vock at the New Statesman cautioned that “the story is almost completely bollocks”. Vock also used a Twitter thread to present a chronicle of Travers’s “lies over the years”.

Edinburgh University’s student newspaper, The Tab, also ran a piece explaining that the story was untrue, while the Student newspaper published an interview with Esme Allman, the woman who had complainted about Travers. Allman also wrote up her own account on a media site called Black Ballad.

The Student interview was highlighted by J. K. Rowling, and a comprehensive corrective to Ames’s reports has now been produced by Nick Cohen at the Guardian. Cohen’s account makes it clear that the whole thing was a vicious concoction by an attention seeker who was engaging in self-publicity by hawking a bogus “exposé” around the media.

It transpires that the reference to black men as “trash” had been taken out of context: it was aimed specifically at black men who were abusing Serena Williams for marrying a white man. Further, Travers also taunted Allman with his scheme, telling her that “multiple news agencies have been delivered [sic] your comments” and threatening to report her for extremism.

The media declined to bite, but Allman made a harassment complaint about it to the university. Travers therefore decided to make this the basis for a new scandal, for which purpose he introduced the fake “ISIS” element. Cohen explains:

The Mail, the Sun, Trump’s propaganda network Fox News, Putin’s propaganda network Russia Today, the Express, the Times, which broke the “story”, and the far-right US sites Infowars and Breitbart assured their gullible readers that Travers was the victim of the latest politically correct insanity. It wasn’t just the rightwing press. The Independent, the Mirror, and papers across Europe loved the story.

…Allman told me she never mentioned Isis and the transcript of her complaint bears this out.

Ames must have known this last detail, as he quotes directly from the complaint.

Cohen appears to be the only national journalist to have checked Ames’s account of the complaint against the original document; he is also the only one to have looked into Travers’s claim to have been “media manager” at a foreign policy think-tank called the Human Security Centre (they told Cohen: “He was a complete liability. He was never the media manager. He was just junior comms staff, who ran our Twitter account very badly.” [1])

Cohen sees the fiasco as an example of a malaise in current journalism. It’s certainly that, although it’s also an illustration of Jonathan Ames’s willingness to promote vicious untruths when they are presented to him on a plate by a law student.

Back in April (as I blogged here), Ames ran a story about a “22-page report” that had been sent to the Bar Standards Board by a law student at Nottingham University, claiming that the barrister Barbara Hewson had sent him “death deaths”. The “22-page” detail was meant to imply substance, although it ought to have been a warning sign of crankdom: and sure enough, the allegations were not just untrue but bizarre, extravagant and only semi-coherent. Needless to say, his complaint went nowhere – an outcome that Ames was less inclined to tell the world about, or to set down in a “paper of record”. (2)

For Ames to trumpet a falsehood from a male law student targeting a woman once is unfortunate; but twice…


(1) It seems likely that Cohen communicated with Julie Lenarz, the Director of the Human Security Centre; certainly, she has rebuked Travers in similar terms on Twitter.

(2) The student complaining about Barbara also claimed that the death threats had been sent anonymously, by someone calling themselves “Harry Troll” (a detail Ames left out). This indicates that he was being wound up by a third party who knew that these messages would agitate him to further invective against Barbara, and who wanted to provide him with fake “evidence”.

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