After Health Secretary Matt Hancock visited a hospital in Leeds, journalists were briefed by unnamed Conservative sources that one of his aides had been punched by a Labour Party activist.
ITV political editor Robert Peston suggested that “senior Tories” had told him the aide had been “whacked”.
Meanwhile, BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg tweeted: “So Matt Hancock was despatched to Leeds General (sorry not just Leeds Hospital), to try to sort out mess, heading Labour activists scrambled to go + protests, and it turned nasty when they arrived — one of them punched Hancock’s adviser".
On the morning of the supposed incident, the Tory campaign was jolted when The Daily Mirror published a picture of 4-year-old Jack Williment-Barr lying on the floor of Leeds General Infirmary for lack of a bed. It had first been published in The Yorkshire Evening Post. The Tories were jolted even harder by Boris Johnson’s reaction when ITV’s Joe Pike asked him to respond to the picture. Johnson initially refused to look at it and then pocketed the reporter’s mobile phone. After the reporter drew attention to Johnson’s actions, the prime minister admitted “it’s a terrible, terrible photo.” The media quickly picked up on the interview and Hancock was sent to the hospital to calm the furore. He and his aides were loudly heckled as they left. The health secretary tweeted that there had been “a concerted attempt by Labour activists to intimidate me and my team.” Briefed by anonymous Tory sources, journalists amplified this to say that one of Hancock’s aides, Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, had been punched in the face.
The punch story gained rapid currency, particularly on social media. Analysis by Professor Marc Owen Jones showed that the biggest contributors to the story’s following on Twitter were three big names: Tom Newton-Dunn, political editor of The Sun, Robert Peston, political editor of ITV, and Laura Kuenssberg, political editor of the BBC.
But the punch never happened. This was revealed by a video of the event, which showed no attempted or actual violence by any protestor. Hancock’s aide accidentally collided with a protestor, who had raised his arm. West Yorkshire Police issued a statement that they were not aware of reports of a punch.
Nearly all the journalists who had reported the punch retracted the story — although not Newton Dunn. Peston tweeted: “It is completely clear from video footage that Matt Hancock’s adviser was not whacked by a protestor, as I was told by senior Tories, but that he inadvertently walked into a protestor’s hand. I apologise for getting this wrong.” However, he declined respondents’ requests to name the sources concerned and to promise that he would not rely on them in the future.
Kuenssberg removed her original tweet reported the punch and issued a new one: “Have video from Hancock leaving Leeds General just come through so you can see for yourself — doesn’t look like punch thrown, rather, one of Tory team walks into protestor’s arm, pretty grim encounter.” This falls short of a retraction, and abdicates to viewers her responsibility for judging the truth of the story she had put out.
The Tory claim of a punch was a lie. It was put out by Peston’s unnamed senior sources as a smokescreen to cover Johnson’s embarrassing response to the story about a sick child, which had reinforced earlier attacks on his lack of empathy.
This is the worst of a series of manufactured stories which shows that no reputable journalist can rely on any uncorroborated statement by any anonymous Conservative source. Newton Dunn, Peston, Kuenssberg and others bear a heavy personal responsibility for transmitting Tory falsehoods.