Now that Ashya King, the little boy with brain cancer who is fighting for his life, has been reunited with his parents, it is perhaps a good moment to consider how this news story has played out in the media, and more specifically how the two opposing parties – Ashya’s parents and the various ‘agencies’ involved – have fared in the mind of the public.
Obviously, this is a secondary issue compared to the future wellbeing of this little boy. Everyone wishes him well.
However, the media coverage of this story has played a big part in what will happen next with regard to his treatment.
There’s obviously a lot we don’t know about this little boy’s case. We are not party to all his medical details and nor should we be.
However, unless there’s something we’ve not been told about this case, it would appear that the various bodies involved have some serious questions to answer; questions that were exposed in the media storm and which have not yet been answered.
“Power to the People” was how one tweeter summed up majority public reaction to the news that the European Arrest Warrant had been lifted on Ashya’s parents who were then reunited with him in hospital in Spain.
Rarely has a news story changed direction quite so dramatically.
Initially, Mr and Mrs King were depicted as kidnappers of their child when they removed him from Southampton General Hospital. The fact that they were Jehovah’s Witnesses was also thrown into the melting pot, as if that in itself was supposed to raise suspicions about them.
Then, however, a whole new complexion was placed on the story when Mr King posted a video on YouTube showing him embracing his little boy and explaining why they had removed him from the hospital in Southampton. From his account, this seemed as the though the parents had acted for the best of motives.
The YouTube video prompted a groundswell of support on social media. This undoubtedly proved how effective this form of communication has become.
However, this would not have shaped the story of its own accord. It was when the mainstream news organisations picked up on this social media firestorm, and sensed the change in the direction of the news story, that their coverage also changed tack.
From that moment on, the heat was on Southampton General Hospital, Portsmouth Council, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to provide answers as to why Asia’s parents had been branded as criminals. What crime had they actually committed, was the question being asked in thousands of tweets.
Another reason why pressure mounted on these various authorities was the videos subsequently posted by two of Ashya’s brothers. These were not ranting tirades against the UK authorities, but instead the case for the family expressed in measured terms by two eloquent young men.
More importantly, they drew attention to the core issues at the heart of this matter and spoke to the general public in a language that would resonate with them.
The response from the UK authorities was a classic example of how not to handle a crisis.
Firstly, it took them far too long to get their act together – to assess whether they had made a mistake.
Secondly, the various agencies had no answer to the points raised by the family.
Mr King made the claim that his mere objection to the medical treatment being offered by Southampton General Hospital had resulted in a threat from doctors to serve an emergency protection order on him, thereby seizing custody of the child from him. There was no answer to that.
What exactly was the position with regard to the permission required to remove someone from hospital? Do we need the ‘consent’ of doctors to do that? Does a child belong to its parents or the state? There was no answer to that either.
Thirdly, having eventually decided they had got it wrong, there was no public admission of this. The impression left with the public was that a huge exercise in back-covering was now underway.
The only thing the hospital spokespeople came up with was to express regret that there had been “a breakdown in communication between the family and hospital”. This was mealy-mouthed avoidance of the real issues at stake.
Other statements from the relevant authorities also seemed to emphasise how ‘the process’ took precedence over the well-being of the little boy.
Eventually, after Ashya’s parents had been jailed with no communication with their child whatsoever, the social media firestorm, echoed by the mainstream media, overwhelmed the local council, the hospital, the police and the CPS. The European Arrest Warrant was finally rescinded. This was accompanied by a distinct sense of buck-passing among these various bodies. It was not a dignified sight.
So what are the lessons in all of this for dealing with the media – social and mainstream – when a crisis breaks?
Firstly, you have to be much quicker off the mark with your response than was the case here.
Secondly, you need to have an answer to the main points being levelled against you by the media and, through them, the public at large.
Finally, when you know it’s all gone wrong and you’ve made a mistake, admit it. The impression conveyed by the authorities in this case was that the jailing of the parents had been the result of a “multiagency malfunction” or some other jargon-ridden reason.
A genuine apology, heartfelt sympathy and a touch of humility were all distinctly absent in the response by the authorities.
This has been a stunning lesson in how the public can change the course of events using social media and having that public outrage taken up by mainstream news channels and newspapers.
Rarely before has this happened with such a seismic effect.
Politicians, from David Cameron downwards – who would normally choose to stay out of an issue like this, saying it was a matter only for the hospital and the parents – could not avoid being dragged into the whole story.
Without question, this is going to happen again. At a time when many people feel that politicians of all parties have no real understanding of the issues that affect their daily lives, this story has shown the public can still exercise their right to be heard.
When the driving force of social media gets picked up by our newspapers and 24-hour news channels, it can result in decision-makers being cornered and forced to change direction.
This might prove to be a stronger form of democracy than general elections.