Phillip Schofield's List shows the danger of treating internet rumours as news

Sometimes big stories can be ignored by news organisations because there is corruption, and sometimes because they simply can’t be stood up. So when did we start putting so much trust in Twitter rumours and David Icke?

“It took a momentary, cursory glance at the internet,” said Phillip Schofield, explaining the list of suspected paedophiles he handed over to David Cameron yesterday.

Schofield’s List made good television, as the presenter dramatically handed over the names on a This Morning branded card. But it didn’t make sense. And it wasn’t good journalism.

This was the moment when internet rumours and "cursory glances" became good enough. What did it achieve, this handing over of names from a few websites? It didn’t tell Cameron anything he didn’t already know; but it did make This Morning the biggest story of the day.

In the fallout from the Jimmy Savile revelations, there’s been a growing hubbub about suspected paedophile stories. There are several strands: delving into the murky past of light entertainers; looking at the sinister-sounding connections between Savile, the police and powerful people; and occasionally tying everything together into a giant conspiracy.

Normally rational internet folk have been linking to the likes of David Icke, suggesting that a man with an outlandishly unrealistic worldview could be near to the truth with this particular conspiracy theory. Names of former Prime Ministers have been dragged up and linked to paedophilia. Former ministers have been accused. Links to freemasonry, serial killers and the occult have been made. It is an overwhelming, astonishing story, if true.

If true.

But where is the evidence, the real evidence?  

Newsnight’s report began the latest deluge, though it was not directly responsible for it. However, the existence of the programme escalated the obscene guessing games which had previously focused on Savile’s entertainment contemporaries, and switched the focus to politicians.

At the heart of the report was an earnest attempt to establish what had been going on in care homes, and sensitive interviews with survivors. But that must now be seen in the light of today’s mistaken identity story in the Guardian – which is not an attack on the victim at the heart of the story, or a "rowing back" from the investigation, but an attempt to ascertain facts. Facts are all that we as consumers have to go on, and it’s vital that those broadcasters and old media that we still trust value them as deeply as possible.

If we are not careful, the facts recede into the distance amid all the lurid speculation and rumour. A "momentary, cursory glance at the internet" brings up all kinds of accusations: the bizarre, wrong, lying, deliberately smearing and occasionally correct.

Sometimes big stories can be ignored by news organisations because there is corruption, and sometimes because they simply can’t be stood up. Sometimes names are not made public – not out of deference to powerful perpetrators, but because there’s not enough evidence.

All the speculation diminishes the kernel of the story, which is that many people who have been horribly exploited and abused are finding the confidence to come forward. It is right that they are not disbelieved, and it is right that the way in which previous allegations were dealt with should be investigated; but it doesn’t necessarily follow that there was a massive cover-up. Nor does it follow that every single allegation is true, regardless of evidence. Perhaps some confusion arises when readers and viewers don’t realise that you can say what you like about the dead, but not about the living.

Now, more than ever, we need our traditional news outlets to be absolutely certain before they publish or broadcast, given the mass of wrong and misleading information out there. It’s what we as readers and viewers deserve, and should demand as a minimum standard. If we don’t, there will be no difference between "a cursory glance on the internet" and news.

The moment when Phillip Schofield handed David Cameron the list on This Morning.
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear