Omar Salem confronts British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: Yui Mok/WPA Pool/Getty Images
Omar Salem confronts British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: Yui Mok/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Four words that sparked firestorm

When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was confronted by an angry parent of a sick child during a hospital visit, the awkward moment quickly went viral.

Mr Johnson was touring Whipps Cross University Hospital in London on Wednesday when Omar Salem angrily complained about the shortcomings of the National Health Service, saying staff shortages meant his seven-day-old daughter "nearly died yesterday".

Mr Salem said the "A&E guys were great but we then came down to this ward here" where they had to wait two hours, adding it was "not acceptable". "This ward is not safe for children," he said to the PM in the heated exchange.

"There was one registrar covering the entirety of this ward and the neonatal unit. There are not enough people on this ward, there are not enough doctors, there's not enough nurses, it's not well organised enough.

"The NHS has been destroyed … and now you come here for a press opportunity."

Mr Johnson said "there's no press here", but Mr Salem gestured to the cameras filming the confrontation. "What do you mean there's no press here, who are these people?" he asked.

The PM said he was there to "find out" about the situation, but Mr Salem hit back, "It's a bit late, isn't it? Years and years and years of the NHS being destroyed."

 

Omar Salem, a Labour activist, confronts British Prime Minister Boris Johnson about hospital staff shortages and inadequacies in the NHS. Picture: Yui Mok/WPA Pool/Getty Images
Omar Salem, a Labour activist, confronts British Prime Minister Boris Johnson about hospital staff shortages and inadequacies in the NHS. Picture: Yui Mok/WPA Pool/Getty Images

 

Mr Omar then berates Mr Johnson for organising a press call at the London hospital where his baby daughter almost died the previous day. Picture: Yui Mok/WPA Pool/Getty Images
Mr Omar then berates Mr Johnson for organising a press call at the London hospital where his baby daughter almost died the previous day. Picture: Yui Mok/WPA Pool/Getty Images

 

When Mr Johnson denies there are members of the press present, a photographer captures this image of him staring into a camera. Picture: Yui Mok/WPA Pool/Getty Images
When Mr Johnson denies there are members of the press present, a photographer captures this image of him staring into a camera. Picture: Yui Mok/WPA Pool/Getty Images

 

Not long after, however, Mr Salem was identified as an activist with the opposition Labour Party who describes himself on Twitter as "campaigning against Brexit and for a socialist Europe".

He tweeted that Mr Johnson "had the temerity" to visit the hospital "for a press opportunity" so he "gave him a piece of my mind". "Boris Johnson has been an MP, Mayor of London, Cabinet Minister and now PM while the NHS has been neglected, just as my daughter was last night," he wrote.

"Rather than drips of money for press opportunities he should get on with properly supporting the NHS so that patients get the care they deserve, there is adequate staffing with good working conditions and worried fathers like me can have some peace of mind."

The revelation was seized on by supporters of the PM, some of whom claimed the incident was a "political stunt". "Another lefty remainer. Boris stop letting the traitors keep setting you up," one person wrote.

Many dismissed it as irrelevant, however. "His child was sick that is why he was in the hospital and he did not arrange the press as press followed Johnson. Besides what this man said was true," another said.

BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg sparked a firestorm of criticism for even pointing it out. Kuenssberg had initially tweeted about "another very, very awkward encounter" for the PM, described as like a "rabbit in headlights", before adding "turns out the man who challenged the PM is also a Labour activist".

 

She then quoted Mr Salem's own tweet talking about the incident, writing, "This is him here." For those four words, Kuenssberg was accused of "doxxing" and "targeted harassment of an father with a ill child in hospital".

"This is absolutely vile by BBC News' Laura Kuenssberg, pointing out to all the right-wing fascists the Twitter account of the guy who confronted Boris Johnson at the hospital," one person wrote.

Another said, "You need to delete this and then apologise. At best this shows poor judgment. Your job is to report the news as fairly as you can, not to provoke a Twitter mob."

The BBC later issued a statement defending Kuenssberg. "Laura is a journalist who uses social media as part of her job," it said.

"Like many others, Laura quote tweeted a thread by Omar Salem, who had written himself about his encounter with the PM on social media and describes himself as a Labour activist. Any suggestion there was malicious intent behind her tweets are absurd."

Commenting on the controversy Mail on Sunday columnist Dan Hodges asked, "In the upcoming election, politicians of all persuasions are going to be confronted by people. Some of them will be party activists. Should the press report it if they are? Yes or no. What's the answer now, before it's your own favourite politician involved. What is the rule?"

Firefighter and trade union activist Paul Embery wrote, "Omar Salem was perfectly entitled to berate the PM over NHS underfunding. The media were perfectly entitled to point out that he was a Labour activist. (It's a simple case of declaring an interest - the same as if Corbyn was attacked by a Tory activist.) No more to it really."

frank.chung@news.com.au


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