Prominent journalists have been forced to backtrack after claiming an adviser to health secretary Matt Hancock was variously “punched” and “assaulted” outside a Leeds hospital.
The Tory minister had been sent to Leeds General Infirmary on Monday afternoon after a picture printed on the front page of the Daily Mirror showed a four-year-old boy lying on a ward floor because of a shortage of beds.
The adviser, who is a long-standing aide of the cabinet minister, was claimed to have been involved in an altercation with a protester as he tried to get into his car outside the hospital.
The suggestion was picked up on Twitter by ITV’s political editor Robert Peston, who has more than a million followers, and his BBC counterpart Laura Kuenssberg, who is also followed by more than a million accounts. Peston said the aide had been “whacked in the face” and Kuenssberg said he had been “punched”.
Other journalists suggested a man had been arrested. “Punched” appeared in headlines of stories written by MailOnline, The Sun and The Express.
As the allegations were being shared, HuffPost UK contacted West Yorkshire Police, which pointed to statements it would make on social media.
It could not confirm any of the claims and later posted: “We are aware of information circulating on social media in relation to an alleged incident involving election campaigners at Leeds General Infirmary this afternoon.
“We are currently unaware of any reports of this nature but are seeking to verify.”
Other reporters were soon offering a conflicting interpretation of events.
BBC political correspondent Nick Eardley told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme that Hancock was heckled by a “small group” of Labour activists as he left.
But asked if things got physical, he added: “No, I don’t think it did. From, certainly, the pictures we’ve seen and from what I saw myself, it didn’t appear to be violent in any way.
“There was a lot of shouting – it looks like there was some sort of collision – but it’s not clear. It appears to have been accidental rather than anything deliberate.”
And Kuenssberg later posted a video that contradicted her earlier, now deleted tweet. The clip showed a man walking into a demonstrator’s arm as he pointed at Hancock’s departing car.
The footage shows a group crowded around the car, telling Hancock “we do not want you in this country, we do not want you in this hospital” before he drove off.
The protester shouts “these people have devastated our country” and waves his finger in the air on the street outside the hospital. The Tory aide, wearing a black suit jacket, then walks into his arm by accident.
Kuenssberg wrote: “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.”
And she added later on: “Happy to apologise for earlier confusion about the punch that wasn’t a punch outside Leeds General - 2 sources suggested it had happened but clear from video that was wrong.”
And Peston later moved to correct himself: “It is completely clear from video footage that’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.”
The earlier claims prompted a backlash against senior journalists for failing to check their facts.