Notes on the Mail on Sunday and Some “Appallingly Abusive Tweets”

A headline at the Mail on Sunday tells us what to think:

Repellent cowards: Left-wing writer and teacher at a top girls’ school target Michael Gove’s family with appallingly abusive tweets

Politicians, of course, receive a great deal of uncivil commentary on social media, but some instances are deemed more significant by tabloid journalists than others. In this instance, Gove is a politician that the paper supports, but more to the point is that Gove’s wife Sarah Vine is a commentator with the Daily Mail, sister paper to the MoS. Thus “vile trolls” must be shamed before the nation as a matter of revenge.

The story starts reasonably enough with the case of Andy Dawson, a man who has received a police caution for Tweeting at Vine that he would like to physically assault Gove in front of his family. The story is newsworthy both in itself, and also because Dawson is a public figure – he hosts a podcast with Bob Mortimer, and he has written for the Daily Mirror and the Guardian (three old commentary pieces for the latter paper – enough to make him a “Guardian journalist” according to the MoS). It was a malicious joke made in anger rather than a credible threat, but it crossed the line.

However, the paper then introduces someone else:

Elsewhere on Twitter, a teacher at a girls’ secondary school discussed the Goves’ 17-year-old daughter ‘like a piece of meat’ while targeting her parents with vile abuse.

Alom Shaha, a physics teacher at Camden School for Girls in London, said the 17-year-old should ‘actively campaign against’ her father before accusing Mr Gove and his wife of supporting fascism.

Mr Shaha said in his tweet: ‘I would love to see a f****** 12-year-old of one of these b******s leave home and claim asylum saying they don’t want to live with fascists.’

Shaha in fact wrote several Tweets, responding to a clip of Helen Whately MP on Question Time:

I’d like to see the children of these people, if they have them, denounce them. Although perhaps their children are also of the same bent… Mic says Gove’s daughter distances herself from him on TikTok. She should go further and actively campaign against him.

Shaha also said that he was “shocked that any self respecting teenage offspring of these bastards doesn’t publicly shame them”, adding that “I can only conclude they are as awful as their parents.”

In my view, teachers ought to conduct themselves on social media with a bit more dignity than this, but this was a general rant that was brought to Vine’s attention by third parties. Shaha has a blue tick, but I’m not convinced this was a matter of national public interest, and I doubt it would have passed muster without being tagged onto end of the Dawson story. It’s also excessive and vicious to characterise this as discussing the daughter “like a piece of meat”, which is Vine’s allegation – such a phrase implies degradation, and has sexual overtones.

The story continues:

In both cases Ms Vine… tackled the trolls head on.

She also took on a third, who claimed in an exchange with Shaha that the Goves’ daughter ‘distances’ herself from her father on TikTok.

And here’s where the victim narrative falls apart. The alleged “third” troll has identified himself as Mic Wright, and the reason he’s not named is because he told article’s author, Nick Constable, that he would take action against unless he was given right of reply. That right of reply would have required Constable having the explain how exactly Vine was supposedly “tackling the trolls” – which was by dropping a paedo-smear. As Vine wrote:

I see that ⁦@brokenbottleboy⁩ describes himself as ‘100 per cent deviant’ which perhaps explains why he likes to obsess about teenage girls with teachers like ⁦@alomshaha.

This, of course, was open season for a pile-on by actual trolls, who obliged Vine by sending goading paedo-themed abuse.

But all Mic had done was to make a joke about that Gove’s daughter is “distanced” from her parents, inspired by a light-hearted Tatler article mentioning how she was in self-isolation over suspected Covid-19. Mic’s commentary on this was to suggest she might rebel in the future “given time” – a reasonable possibility given some other details mentioned in the article. This is the sort of thing we might imagine Ian Hislop saying on Have I Got News For You, where it would be received as witty snark rather than the “appallingly abusive” outpourings of a “repellent coward”.

Rather than provide readers with a full account that would have undermined the perennial “vile trolls target public figure” tabloid trope, the article’s author resorted to vagueness. I would argue that this is suggestive of bad faith.

Barrow: A Note on the Allegations and the Threats to Journalists

A Tweet from Amy Fenton, a journalist at The Mail, a local paper in Barrow in the north of England:

Staying off Twitter for a bit. I’ve done what any self-respecting reporter would do. But I will NOT tolerate anyone threatening my daughter. I’m now under police protection. Ppl who have threatened me (eg attached) need to know – this is not acceptable. It is illegal.

The attached image shows a Facebook comment from someone going by the name Roger Crozier, who writes “Slit Amy Fenton’s throat while saying Islamic prayers for her”.

The Mail‘s editor, Vanessa Sims, has written of “increasing levels of abuse, intimidation and threats the team at The Mail have received” and of “a gang of 12 men to gathering outside The Mail offices shouting intimidating slurs and demands upon my reporters.”

Sims’s editorial is headlined “A message from the Editor after a Barrow woman is charged with perverting the course of justice”, and she refutes claims of “conspiracy between the press and the police to cover up crimes”. This appears to be a reference to three articles in particular.

On 21 May, Fenton wrote that

POLICE in Barrow have confirmed a lengthy investigation has found ‘no evidence’ of a gang of men exploiting young women in Barrow.

In a video statement, Detective Chief Superintendent Dean Holden, head of crime and safeguarding at Cumbria Police, revealed an investigation has been ongoing for over 12 months.

The video was recorded ‘in response’ to a series of Facebook posts made about sex abuse allegations.

Det Ch Supt Holden reveals ‘an individual has been charged with some offences’.

Two days later, Sims wrote up a court appearance, which explained that a “19-year-old has been charged with seven counts of perverting the course of justice relating to seven allegations made between 2017 and 2020” and noted she had been remanded into custody.

On the same day, however, Sims also reported 

EARLIER this week a teenage girl took to social media to report allegations she had suffered horrific physical and sexual abuse.

The woman in her late teens claimed she had been beaten, burned, drugged and trafficked for sex throughout the north of England by a gang of Asian men.

She posted graphic pictures of injuries including bruises, scratches and burn marks.

The report further clarified that this was the “series of Facebook posts made about sex abuse allegations” alluded to on 21 May.

The two 23 May reports were not explicitly linked, but they followed a 21 May article published by Mail Online, the online stablemate of the national Daily Mail (but no relation to The Mail in Barrow), that combined the two strands under the headline “Girl, 19, is charged with perverting course of justice after telling police she was drugged and raped by Asian sex gang in Cumbria”. Photos of her injuries were included, along with the extra descriptive detail that she had “black eyes”.

Unfortunately, the first impression given by the article was that the woman had been promptly charged with perverting the course of justice after presenting these injuries to police. However, a closer reading of the Mail Online text indicates that this was not the case:

Last night Cumbria Police confirmed it was investigating an incident of physical and sexual abuse that was reported by a woman in her late teens on Tuesday evening.

…Cumbria Police revealed on Wednesday that they had launched a 12 month investigation into claims of sexual and physical abuse by an organised gang…

…Today the force said the only charges to arise from the investigation was against a young woman. In a statement it said: ‘Cumbria Constabulary can confirm that a 19-year-old woman, from Barrow-in-Furness, is subject of ongoing criminal proceedings.

‘She was charged with seven counts of perverting the course of justice on 26th March 2020 and was released on bail.

‘She has subsequently been arrested on 20th May for breach of her bail conditions and has been remanded in custody, court date to be notified. ‘

This strongly implies that the new “incident” post-dates her being charged; it is not quite clear if the images are allegedly the result of what happened, or are older images newly uploaded. One may be tempted to speculate about how this “incident”might relate to the charges against her, or to seek out what the woman herself says about it on social media, but a newspaper must handle the matter cautiously at the moment. As Sims explains:

The UK law dictates strict rules the press, including The Mail, must follow when reporting ongoing legal proceedings such as these.

Often The Mail team knows much more than what we are legally allowed to publish but we are duty bound to follow rules so not to prejudice ongoing police investigations or court cases.

Such restrictions are well known – more than once in the past they have been flouted by Tommy Robinson, who then frames the legal consequences of his actions as state censorship and persecution. Robinson showed up at protest in support of the woman that took place yesterday – judging from clips on YouTube he was well received, although the woman’s family have rejected his involvement, telling The Mail:

“We want to make it clear that this has nothing to do with us and we do not want him involved.

“We are a peaceful family who condemns any form of racial hatred.”

Also supporting the woman is the respected advocate for grooming gang victims Maggie Oliver, who has used Twitter to promote a social media “justice” campaign set up on the woman’s behalf. Referring to the Mail Online article, she wrote “Far easier to blame the victim than embark on a complex investigation”, which gave the false impression that Cumbria Police are not investigating her apparently new injuries; and asked about why the story has not received wider coverage, Oliver suggested that “the authorities are very powerful and close down MSM”. The campaign has published further details and claims, including the suggestion that  one of the alleged gang members had boasted that the local paper was in his “pocket”. Oliver’s efforts to promote the campaign have now been commended by the celebrity television presenter Rachel Riley.

The Mail has also highlighted the impact of the allegations on innocent Asian business owners residing locally.

Note on the woman’s name

It appears that the woman has waived her right to anonymity – the justice campaign uses her name, and her social media posts both use her name and show her face (substantiating the facial injuries described by Mail Online). However, her name is not used in most of the mainstream media reports about her, and in the above I follow their lead for the time being. It may be that there is some other legal impediment to naming her that is being ignored on social media, or that posting on social media is not sufficient as a formal waiver if she were to object.

The terms “woman” or even “young woman” perhaps fail to convey the particular vulnerability of a 19-year-old who is still a thresholder adult, but “teenager” or “girl” could be misleading in other ways.

MPs Scrub Tweets Endorsing Keir Starmer Smear

From the Independent, and widely reported:

Conservative MPs including a health minister have shared an edited video of Keir Starmer from a “far-right” Twitter account.

The footage, dating from Sir Keir’s time as director of public prosecutions in 2013, was taken from an announcement of new guidelines on charging grooming gangs.

But it had been edited to remove the start of the interview where he was asked to give examples of the “wrong approach”, making him appear to justify failing to believe child victims.

The three MPs manually RTed the Tweet with added comments of their own; both the original account and the MPs endorsements of it have now disappeared, although without the grace of a corrective for the benefit of their followers or an apology to Starmer.

Each MP handled the matter differently: Nadine Dorries simply deleted the Tweet without explanation; Maria Caulfield appears to have deleted her entire account (although there has been some suggestion it was suspended); while Lucy Allan (previously blogged here) chose to double-down on the general point while not naming Starmer again directly. Allan thus provided a short quote to Aaron Banks’s website Westmonster, in which she stated that “In standing up for victims of CSE in Telford I have had to challenge police, council, and CPS (vigorously).” She did not go into any detail, but the point was merely to create the headline “Telford MP slams establishment failure on Child Sexual Exploitation” as a self-promoting diversion from her mistake. (1)

The account that provided the misleading news clip went by the name Njames World (@NJamesWorld), and it had in excess of 25,000 followers. (2) Other Tweets from the account still visible in  Google Cache include the opinion that Priti Patel is “useless” as Home Secretary for failing to prevent the arrival of illegal immigrants; that we should remember that the Nazis were Germans, as this explains modern Germany’s position on Europe; and that illegal immigrants are “scumbags from all over the world”. He also suggested Starmer’s clapping in support of the NHS was done “for the cameras”, rather than because he genuinely cares about the NHS – a claim that also appeared elsewhere.

At LBC, James O’Brien has argued that the MPs promoted the Tweet because they were dismayed by Starmer’s performance in holding Boris Johnson to account at Prime Minister’s Question Time; but although Dorries in particular has a history of Trumpian lashing out (sometimes in concord with bad actors on social media), this explanation is unduly conspiratorial. The simple fact is that many MPs are superficial and careless, and easily manipulated into amplifying misinformation. This has been very obvious ever since the heyday of the satirical TV show Brass Eye.

Why on earth would Keir Starmer appear on TV to justify not prosecuting grooming gangs? Why would nobody have noticed the significance of it, apart from some semi-anonymous Twitter account? Two very obvious questions that went over the heads of MPs who saw what looked like an easy bit of point-scoring. But how did such rubbish even find its way into their Twitter feeds in the first place? What kind of trash is informing their decision-making on a daily basis?

Footnotes

1. I previously discussed media reports about “grooming” crimes in Telford here.

2. It has been suggested that “NJames World” was someone named James Edding or James Edwin, allegedly a far-right activist with “links” to National Action. However, the only source for this claim is one John O’Connell, and his claim is undocumented. This seems to be a pattern with O’Connell: last month, he made headlines with claims about “128 Twitter accounts” supposedly impersonating NHS staff, but the only evidence he provided was one account that was obviously a parody rather than an impersonation. O’Connell refused to be drawn further, saying that he would produce the evidence once it was “gold plated”. That has not happened so far.

Another Serial Killer “Expert” Exposed Over Falsehoods

From Le Monde, 2018:

Il va de plateaux de télévision en colloques, de sessions de formation dispensées à l’Ecole nationale de la magistrature à des interventions auprès de psychiatres ou de commissaires de police, ce qui ne l’empêche pas de continuer à interroger des criminels récidivistes un peu partout dans le monde. Dès qu’il s’agit de crimes et de faits divers sanglants, Stéphane Bourgoin est appelé à témoigner de son savoir acquis auprès de plus de soixante-dix « serials killers » (surtout américains) qu’il a interrogés et filmés depuis presque quarante ans. Auteur d’une cinquantaine de livres et de documentaires sur le sujet,

Alas – from the Guardian, yesterday:

An online investigation has exposed French author Stéphane Bourgoin, whose books about serial killers have sold millions of copies in France, as a serial liar…. But in January, anonymous collective the 4ème Oeil Corporation accused him of lying about his past…. He… acknowledged that he never trained with the FBI, never interviewed Charles Manson, met far fewer killers than he has previously claimed, and never worked as a professional footballer – another claim he had made.

Shades of Paul Harrison, whom I discussed here. The 4ème Oeil (“Fourth Eye”) Corporation website can be seen here; the story hit French media on 6 May, when Bourgoin came clean in an interview with Paris Match.

Bourgoin has also admitted making up the existence of a former wife who was supposedly murdered by a serial killer in the US. It appears he appropriated material from two South African police officers, Micki Pistorius and Derick Norsworthy, and an FBI agent named John E. Douglas.

Bourgoin’s Wikipedia entry provides a useful overview of his career – as ever, the site must be used with caution, but there are links to sources. Of particular interest is the extent of his work with police:

En conséquence de son intérêt particulier pour les tueurs en série, Bourgoin est conférencier pendant près de 10 ans — jusqu’en 2007 — au Centre national de formation de police judiciaire de l’école de la Gendarmerie nationale française et à l’École nationale de la magistrature en 2015 et 2018. Il a donné 5 cours à l’École nationale de l’administration pénitentiaire.

It should be noted, though, that that some professionals he advised maintain that he has exceptional insight into the subject.

Bourgoin’s fascination with serial killers appears to have developed out of an interest in horror and fantastic fiction. In the 1980s he translated some works of Robert Bloch, including Bloch’s 1962 novelisation of his own film The Couch, cannily retitled by the French publisher as Psychopathe (although in 2011 Bourgoin also provided the preface for a French edition of Bloch’s classic Psycho). He also translated a study of H.P. Lovecraft by Frank Belknap Long, and wrote books profiling the cinema of Roger Corman and Terence Fisher.

Bourgoin did live in the US in the 1970s, but rather than being trained by the FBI he was writing screenplays for films starring the pornographic actor John Holmes.

A Note on a Media Version of Neil Ferguson’s “Track Record”

From a column by Matt Ridley and David Davis MP in the Daily Telegraph (and reproduced here):

Is the chilling truth that the decision to impose lockdown was based on crude mathematical guesswork?

…It is not as if [Neil] Ferguson’s track record is good. In 2001 the Imperial College team’s modelling led to the culling of 6 million livestock and was criticised by epidemiological experts as severely flawed. In various years in the early 2000s Ferguson predicted up to 136,000 deaths from mad cow disease, 200 million from bird flu and 65,000 from swine flu. The final death toll in each case was in the hundreds.

The link there is to a previous article, which outlines criticisms by Michael Thrusfield, professor of veterinary epidemiology at Edinburgh University, and Alex Donaldson, head of the Pirbright Laboratory at the Institute for Animal Health, both in relation to the foot-and-mouth disease modelling. The various figures quoted above, though, derive from a short list that has appeared on the Telegraph‘s “Politics Live” feed a few days before.

However, I’m sceptical that we can extrapolate a general theory of Ferguson’s incompetence based on one high-profile controversy, and the other examples of Ferguson’s “track record” – a short selective list chosen by the two authors based on UK media familiarity, so nothing about his work on influenza, Ebola or ZIka – are not fairly presented. A computational biologist named Nicolas Bray has pointed to the sources:

On BSE/vCJD: As quoted by Bray, this comes from a 2000 article in Nature: “We show here that the current mortality data are consistent with between 63 and 136,000 cases”

On bird flu: Bray describes this as a “context-free quote which appears to be discussing a *potential* bird flu pandemic”. Source is a Guardian article.

On swine flu: “the worst that might realistically happen”. Source is paragraph 82 of a Science and Technology Committee Parliamentary transcript.

On vCJD, the team of which Ferguson was a part revised its estimates as new evidence came in. As described in by Philip Yam’s book The Pathological Protein: Mad Cow, Chronic Wasting, and Other Deadly Prion Diseases:

Assuming an incubation period of less than 20 years, the U.K. will probably experience only several hundred vCJD cases, according to an August 2000 estimate by [Roy M.] Anderson and his colleagues. Their estimate for the maximum number of cases was 136,000 — and that number assumes an incubation period that can be as long as 60 years. “This would make it unusual, but it cannot be ruled out,” remarked Anderson’s colleague Neil M. Ferguson, especially considering that kuru can incubate for more than 40 years. In 2002, the team lowered its estimates, giving a range of 50 to 50,000 vCJD deaths between 2001 and 2080; in February 2003, it dropped its estimate further, to 10 to 7,000 deaths.

According to Guardian profile of Ferguson, the team

came up with an estimate that was incredibly broad for the likely number of human deaths – between 50 and 50,000 – but that was at a time when some were predicting 2 million people would be infected. There were calls for the sort of NHS resources now going into Covid-19 to be directed towards vCJD. Ferguson and [Christl] Donnelly’s modelling helped defuse that. In the end the UK had about 170 cases.

This works against the media narrative Ferguson as a man whose “track record” consists of sensationalist scaremongering predictions that are then proved to be wildly off-base.  Ferguson’s work, like anyone’s, is open to criticism, but why resort to misrepresentation?

The focus of Ridley and Davis’s article is on the alleged shortcomings of computer coding used in the Imperial College model of Covid-19 infection. It is difficult for non-scientists to make informed assessments here, although I will note informal reactions from a Berkeley biologist named Michael Eisen that the critique amounts to a “ridiculous attack”. Eisen writes that “Nobody thinks the Imperial model is flawless, but its top-line COVID predictions are the result of basic math – the model just fleshes them out”, while Bray adds that Ridley “doesn’t even realize that, as a stochastic model, it’s *supposed* to produce different outputs”.

A defence of Ferguson’s work on Covid-19 by Bryan Appleyard appeared in the most recent Sunday Times.

Donnelly and Ferguson’s 1999 monograph Statistical Aspects of BSE and vCJD: Models for Epidemics can be browsed on Google Books.

US De-Funding of Coronavirus Research: The Mail on Sunday Connection

From Buzzfeed, 29 April:

Right-wing media and conspiracy theorists have seized on a series of grants awarded over the course of six years to study coronaviruses to undermine Dr. Anthony Fauci… The narrative moved to the spotlight at the White House when, during a press conference on April 17, a reporter with Newsmax asked President Donald Trump about the grants, totaling $3.7 million since 2014.

…The Daily Mail, a British tabloid known for publishing unreliable stories, first reported the $3.7 million figure on April 11. The paper wrote a story on the funding, parts of which went to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. Although the article stated that there’s no evidence the novel coronavirus leaked from the lab, it implied a correlation between the grants and the pandemic: “The revelation that the Wuhan Institute was experimenting on bats from the area already known to be the source of COVID-19 — and doing so with American money — has sparked further fears that the lab, and not the market, is the original outbreak source.”

The story actually appeared in the Mail on Sunday, but the paper shares its website with the Daily Mail and Mail Online and the three titles are frequently conflated. The MoS boasted of its role a week later:

Last week, this newspaper also disclosed that the institute had undertaken corona-virus experiments on bats captured more than 1,000 miles away in Yunnan, funded by a $3.7 million grant from the US government.

…Our revelations led to Donald Trump being quizzed at a press conference last week about the leak theory, to which the President replied: ‘We are doing a very thorough examination of this horrible situation.’

The result was that Trump ordered the cancellation of National Institutes of Health funding to the EcoHealth Alliance in New York, which had been cooperating with the Wuhan institute.

In fact, though, only about $100,000 a year went to the institute, through collaborative efforts. Peter Daszak, the head of EcoHealth, has now spoken about this in an interview for CBS’s 60 Minutes:

I can’t just show up in China and say, “Hi, I wanna work on your viruses.” I have to do this through the correct channels. So, what we do is we talk to NIH, and they approve the people we can work with in China. And that happened. And our collaboration with Wuhan was preapproved by NIH.

The 60 Minutes segment undercuts claims that the virus was created by human manipulation (it lacks tell-tale markers), or that it was a natural virus that escaped from the lab. On this latter suggestion, Daszak explains:

The closest known relative [in the Wuhan lab inventory] is one that’s different enough that it is not SARS-CoV-2. So, there’s just no evidence that anybody had it in the lab anywhere in the world prior to the outbreak.

The lab escape theory has also been heavily pushed by the Mail on Sunday.

In Daszak’s assessment:

This politicization of science is really damaging. You know, the conspiracy theories out there have essentially closed down communication between scientists in China and scientists in the U.S. We need that communication in an outbreak to learn from them how they control it so we can control it better. It’s sad to say, but it will probably cost lives.

Or as the CBS headline puts it more bluntly:

Trump Administration Cuts Funding for Coronavirus Researcher, Jeopardizing Possible COVID-19 Cure

This has apparently so upset Trump that he has issued a Tweet accusing CBS of defending China for business reasons.

CBS traces the grant cancellation back to a 14 April appearance by Matt Gaetz on Tucker Carlson Tonight; but that was already several days after the MoS article, which was part of a series written by the paper’s political editor Glen Owen. Owen’s journalism consists to a large extent of conveying political messages from people in government, such as a piece just yesterday undermining Health Secretary Matt Hancock, apparently for the benefit of cabinet rivals (and perhaps even Boris Johnson himself).

Why was Owen tasked with the job of probing virology in China and coming up with sensational stories (e.g. here and here)? It is reasonable to suppose that the material was suggested to him by a political contact, and given that his series kicked off with “Downing Street says China faces a ‘reckoning’ over their handling of coronavirus” on 28 March, citing “Boris Johnson’s allies”, we may suspect Downing Street sources. Classic Dom?

Footnote

Last week also saw a flurry of interest in a supposed “leaked intelligence dossier” reported in Australian media. As reported by the UK Guardian,

[Intelligence] sources… insisted that a “15-page dossier” highlighted by the Australian Daily Telegraph which accused China of a deadly cover up was not culled from intelligence from the Five Eyes network, an alliance between the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

…One told the Guardian they believed the information that appeared in the News Corp title was most likely to have originally come from the US: “My instinct is that it was a tool for building a counter-narrative and applying pressure to China. So it’s the intent behind it that’s most important. So possibly open source leads with a classification slapped on it.”

The Australia Daily Telegraph report was the subject of an ABC Media Watch segment that can be seen here. According to the Sydney Morning Herald (link added):

The episode highlights the danger of mischaracterising the work of intelligence agencies. Some of the footnotes in the document contained references to US media reports that were based on unsubstantiated assertions from the US government – the same kind of circular intelligence which resulted in the “children overboard” affair in 2001.

One wonders if British media reports also featured. The origins of the dossier are obscure, but it is thought to have emerged from the US Embassy in Canberra. Did a staffer there cobble it together, or was it a freelance effort by some third-party bad actors that was pressed into service? Either is possible.

The dossier has also been heavily promoted by the US Christian right, with one neo-Pentecostal prophet claiming that “on April 23, the Holy Spirit showed me China is hiding information that needs to be released in the next 30 days”. She claimed that the dossier was a “partial fulfillment” of this.

Daily Mail Selectively Denounces Goodwill Tweets to Mark Di Stefano

A headline at the Daily Mail:

Hypocrisy of the media luvvies and FT reporter who turned his paper pink with shame

The article, by Richard Pendlebury, starts with the resignation of the Financial Times reporter Mark Di Stefano following the revelation that he had hacked into recent Zoom staff meetings at the Independent and the Evening Standard. However, Pendlebury’s focus is on how some people on Twitter had expressed commiseration for how Di Stefano had ruined his career:

As he disappeared into digital exile, a flurry of tweets from the great and the good at the BBC and the Guardian, as well as hard-Left activists and even a Press reform campaigner, expressed sympathy and support for him. But by so doing, they turned what had been a scandal about one man’s ethical failings into a wider debate on the double standards of some in the liberal media.

Those lined up for a Daily Mail tweet-shaming for showing a bit of sympathy include Emily Maitlis of BBC Newsnight, the left-wing journalists Ash Sarkar (doesn’t work for the BBC, but is a “regular BBC Question Time panellist”, which is near enough) and Aaron Bastani, Pippa Crerar (“formerly of the Guardian and now political editor of the Daily Mirror, which has had to pay out huge sums to settle phone-hacking claims of its own”) and Paul Lewis of BBC Radio 4’s Money Box, as well as Peter Jukes (discussed further below).

It should be pointed out that while the Tweets cited by Pendlebury might be regarded as unduly generous, none of them condoned what Di Stefano had done or expressed the view that the outcome was unfair. The latter, though, was the opinion of Alex Wickham, a former colleague of Di Stefano at Buzzfeed. As noted by Tim at Zelo Street, Wickham wrote:

Glad there is so much support already for Mark, who is a superb reporter and one of the best, most decent people I know. This is an absolutely ridiculous and appalling outcome.

Wickham got his career start in journalism with Paul Staines’s Guido Fawkes smear-site, although since joining Buzzfeed he has re-invented himself as a creditable mainstream journalist. Others who dodged Pendlebury’s censure included the Press Gazette‘s Dominic Ponsford (“Big slip-up this, but he who never made a mistake never made anything – I am sure @MarkDiStef will bounce back from this in due course a lot wiser as a result” – here); and there was also this Tweet from an Australian journalist named Peter Ford:

Hope you learn from this. You’ve orchestrated campaigns against many people,including myself,in the past. You’ve encouraged pile ons and a cancel culture against anyone you consider ‘conservative leaning’. Despite this I hope in time you bounce back as you’re clearly not a fool.

Pendlebury quotes the first half of this Tweet as evidence that those expressing sympathy are disregarding previous instances where Di Stefano had caused harm – but he ignores the last sentence, which is comparable to other expressions of goodwill.

Perhaps Pendlebury takes the view that the charge of “hypocrisy” only applies to left-wing or liberal supporters of press reform, although most people can understand that someone arguing for press reform might also respond to the predicament of an individual journalist who transgresses in sorrow rather than in anger, particularly if they have had personal dealings with them. Further, Maitlis and Lewis are on the list simply because they work for the BBC. The article, then, can be seen as belonging to the bad-faith genre of the Daily Mail vendetta, rather than journalism in the public interest.

Peter Jukes is the “Press reform campaigner” referred to by Pendlebury, and although he’s only part of the story it’s possible that he was the primary target of the article:

…But perhaps the most unlikely goodwill message came from Peter Jukes, author of the phone hacking éxpose The Fall Of The House Of Murdoch and an early supporter of Hacked Off. Mr Jukes is now director of Byline, the media organisation funded by motorsport tycoon Max Mosley…

Mr Jukes tweeted: ‘We’ve had many disagreements but I’m still sad to hear this, Mark. Be well”.

Pendlebury goes on to note that Di Stefano was soon after accused by a BBC News researcher named Hannah Bayman of having infiltrated a private WhatsApp chat of women BBC workers two years ago. Di Stefano had published content from this as “leaked messages”, but it doesn’t appear that there was much suggestion at the time that he had stolen them. This does now appear more likely (although he denies it), and Pendlebury adds:

It may be that Ms Bayman’s tweet – retweeted a number of times – caused Mr Jukes to do an about-turn. On Saturday night he tweeted of his original message to Di Stefano: ‘For various reasons I retract this…’

The “hypocrisy” narrative thus collapses completely – there was some (arguably undeserved) sympathy for (but still strong disapproval over) someone who appeared to have made an error of judgement and crossed the line, withdrawn when further evidence suggested a determined repeat offender.

But why does Pendlebury write that Bayman’s Tweet “may be” why Peter retracted his sympathy, when Peter responded directly to her with an explicit explanation? He wrote (as again noted by Tim at Zelo Street):

This puts things into a different context, especially with the trolling of  @carolecadwalla. One has to ask, since @janinegibson was his editor at both @BuzzFeedUK and @FT if she knew anything about this.

This is the real issue on which “a scandal about one man’s ethical failings” becomes “a wider debate”. Pendlebury notes in passing a “source” as saying that Di Stefano was Janine Gibson’s “golden boy”, but this doesn’t seem to be an avenue that the Daily Mail is interested in pursuing.

For some reason, Pendlebury’s screed was not uploaded to the Daily Mail website, although can be read on Press Reader, which disallows cut-and-pasting of extracts (I had to manually transcribe quotes above). The article also appeared in the print edition, and a legible photograph of it was uploaded to Twitter by Daily Mail hatchet man Guy Adams. Adams has expressed the belief that press critics had declined to criticise the Financial Times for Di Stefano’s hacking because the FT had supported Remain rather than Brexit, and he in particular denounced the group Hacked Off for supposedly not having referred to the incident.

When Adams was shown that this last point was incorrect, and that Hacked Off had indeed made an unequivocal statement on the matter, his complaint then was that they had failed to make more of it, arguing that “if a popular newspaper had done this, you’d have been on about it non stop for the last week”. This was addressed to Hacked Off’s Evan Harris, who responded:

Let’s consider the *facts* (look it up), shall we, Guy?
FT: One reporter. 2 instances. Victims – newspapers. Discovered. Culprit gone.
Tabloid hacking scandal: Dozens of executives. 1000s of cases. Victims – inc families of dead children. Covered up for years. Culprits promoted

A valiant effort, but given the ludicrously disproportionate and selective Daily Mail full-page spread I don’t think putting things in perspective is likely to have any effect.

UK Tabloids Sensationalise on Deleted Wuhan Institute Field Researcher Photos

From the Sun, a couple of days ago:

THE laboratory at the heart of the world’s coronavirus pandemic lied about taking safety precautions when collecting bat samples, The Sun can exclusively reveal.

Shocking leaked photos – which reveal a scandalous lack of safety – were deleted from the website of under-fire China science hub the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

…Incredibly some scientists didn’t even wear gloves as they entered caves to collect fecal bat swab samples, beaming for the camera and oblivious to the dangers.

The damning photos tell a different story to an official 2017 journal, when the institute insisted: “Bat samplings were conducted ten times from April 2011 to October 2015 at different seasons in their natural habitat at a single location (cave) in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China.

“All members of field teams wore appropriate personal protective equipment, including N95 masks, tear-resistant gloves, disposable outerwear, and safety glasses.

…One of the party even gave an interview to state-run news agency Xinhua, admitting he forgot his protective gear and was sprayed with bat urine or blood.

Several of the photos are presented, such as this one:

However, photographs published on an official website can hardly be called “leaked”, even if they have since been removed for some reason. And in this case they remain available on Chinese news websites, such as here at Guancha, where they illustrate a January article by Shi Zhengli, a high-profile researcher at the Wuhan institute who has been the subject of media speculation, including in the Sun. Her account, however, includes the following detail:

有的朋友可能觉得我们采样是在和可怕的病毒打交道,有点生化战的架势,就像左边这张图片一样。但其实这个工作并不像大家想象的那样危险。蝙蝠虽然携带很多病毒,但直接感染人的机会是很小的。除非我们已知某个地点的蝙蝠携带可能传播给人的病毒,会采取级别高一些的防护措施,大多数情况下只采取普通的防护。

Google Translate renders this as follows:

Some friends may think that our sampling is dealing with a terrible virus, a bit of a biochemical warfare, just like the picture on the left. But in fact, this job is not as dangerous as everyone thinks. Although bats carry a lot of viruses, the chance of direct infection of people is very small. Unless we know that bats in a certain location carry viruses that may spread to people, we will take higher-level protective measures, and in most cases, only ordinary protection will be taken.

Photos are provided:

Without access to the deleted Wuhan Institute webpage (I’ve been unable to trace the url), we cannot know if this photo was absent there or if was present but overlooked by the Sun hacks. But Shi’s text and these images together undercut the case that field researchers were “oblivious” and that the 2017 journal authors must have lied about having worn appropriate protective clothing. There’s also a documentary that shows field researchers wearing full protective equipment, a segment of which is available at… erm, the Sun website, as part of an earlier story from 2 April.

Was the working assumption that most viruses are not dangerous excessively lax, though? I don’t claim to know – but neither does the Sun or the Henry Jackson Society, which provided the paper with a predictable rent-a-quote. I’m sure that proper expert opinion could have been found, but perhaps for some reason it was not wanted.

As for the other details: the 2017 journal paper was published in PLOS Pathogens and is available on open access here.  The Xinhua article, meanwhile, is here. This story also dates from 2017, and it profiles Tian Junhua, a field researcher who also appears in the documentary noted above. Again resorting to Google Translate, the story includes the following:

However, in the operation, Tian Junhua forgot to take protective measures. The urine of the bat dripped like raindrops from the top of his head. If he was infected, he could not find the medicine. Tian Junhua tried to calm himself down: “As long as the incubation period of 14 days does not occur, he can be lucky to escape.” After returning home, he took the initiative to keep a distance from his wife and children, isolated for half a month.

It’s clear that Tian took the matter seriously after his mistake, and it is excessive to extrapolate a general theory of sloppiness from this one incident. It’s not clear why the Sun refers to “urine or blood”, but we may suspect that this incident forms the kernel of an “unconfirmed” report that appeared a few weeks ago that workers at the lab had been “sprayed by blood” in an accident.

The Sun story has now been rehashed as part of a new article in the Mail on Sunday by the paper’s political editor Glen Owen. Owen’s articles are an ongoing series; I looked at last week’s overheated installment here. Owen adds that

And the institute appears to have also removed reference to a visit to the institute in March 2018 of Rick Switzer, a science and technology expert from the US embassy in Beijing.

As a result of Mr Switzer’s visit, cables were sent to the US State Department from the embassy warning about the risks of the bat experiments. One read: ‘During interactions with scientists at the WIV laboratory, they [the diplomats] noted the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.’

It should be noted that although the cable referred to a staff shortage, that’s not the same as claiming to have observed bad practice. The start of Owen’s article refers to “visits by diplomats” in the plural, although the removed webpage appears to have described just one visit.  The designated webpage is gone, but the text remains available in a pdf newsletter dated March 2018 still on the institute’s website. The Mail on Sunday article also features a still from the documentary, again showing researchers in protective clothing.

Of course, when an institutional website deletes photos without providing a reason we may suspect that it is because someone wants to conceal something. However, it seems to me that the images of the field researchers, when placed in the context of Shi’s article, do not advance the theory that the COVID-19 outbreak began with infected lab workers or an escape from the laboratory itself.