The truth has never felt more sacred. In the run-up to last week’s general election it was denied, distorted, inflated, ridiculed. The truth became something that could be avoided, talked over, surreptitiously bundled into a pocket.
We saw last week how quickly a lie can bury the truth – even when the truth is a sick child lying on a hospital floor with an oxygen mask. Even when the truth is right there, not in black and white but in colour, corroborated by senior NHS staff and accompanied by the lived experience of a parent who has sat through the trauma of watching her son suffering when the help he so desperately needed wasn’t available, online bots and faceless trolls still had the power to change the narrative, overriding and discrediting the testimony of one family that is simply a visual representation of what many others have experienced on hospital wards all over the country.
The plight of Jack Williment-Barr didn’t get the coverage it deserved last week. A front page on one of the country’s national newspapers and a thorough report by the Yorkshire Evening Post, an excellent local paper, wasn’t enough to tell Jack’s story.
Instead, the worst of the internet took over. Social media took on a dangerous role. A screenshot by an unverified source discrediting Jack’s mother’s story started doing the rounds. The seeds of doubt were sown. By teatime, Jack was forgotten about. The story had evolved into something new. Instead of a story about a sick child battling a serious illness in a place that couldn’t give him the care he needed, it became a story about a clash between left and right, truth and lies.
Some people were more willing to believe Jack’s story was left-wing propaganda than they were to accept the very simple truth – that some hospitals are struggling to cope with the demands put on them, something doctors and nurses have been telling us for years.
And then the story took a bizarre turn.
One of the finest and yet most simplistic pieces of journalistic advice I’ve ever read was a quote from journalist and former Sheffield University lecturer Jonathan Foster.
“If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out of the window and find out which is true.”
Last week senior journalists didn’t look out of the window. When “senior Tories” told them Matt Hancock’s adviser had been assaulted by a Labour activist outside Leeds General Infirmary, Robert Peston and Laura Kuenssberg, the cream of the country’s political reporting crop, didn’t even think to step outside, raise a flat palm to the sky and wait for the droplets to fall before they took to Twitter, sharing an untruth that was subsequently shared by a number of news outlets and shifted the country’s attention from the real issue, which was Jack Williment-Barr, lying on a pile of coats on an overstretched, underfunded hospital ward.
The 2019 election will be remembered for reaching new levels of shameless political lying. But whatever the next five years brings, the truth must be dug out, verified and fought for. We face a dangerous and uncertain future without it.