LONDON: Officials at the UK government-funded Public Health England (PHE) have claimed that The Telegraph was informed that data on coronavirus cases from Pakistan was a "small number" but the input was ignored for a spicy headline.
Mainstream British news outlets — like The Telegraph, The Sun, and The Daily Mail — recently ran stories claiming that travellers from Pakistan were responsible for 50% of the UK's imported COVID-19 cases on the basis of merely 30 cases since June 4.
After widespread concern, the headlines of those stories were changed by the major UK news platforms.
Following multiple correspondences with the PHE, The News has learnt that officials within the government-funded provided data on Pakistan alone and no other countries.
Responding to a request for comment, a PHE spokesperson said the agency had "verified" that Pakistanis were responsible for 50% of the cases to journalists in The Telegraph. They claimed the newspaper received this information from somewhere else and PHE simply provided confirmation.
The PHE said it had told the paper that the number of infections to have come from Pakistan — 30 cases only — was a "small number" but it is believed the paper chose not to publish it in favour of a spicy headline.
Despite multiple requests for data about imported COVID-19 cases from countries other than Pakistan, the PHE did not provide the figures.
When asked for similar data regarding India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, a PHE spokesperson replied: "Apologies but this data isn't available at the moment. We are looking to publish it in the future and will keep you updated on when it is expected."
The PHE spokesperson claimed that The Telegraph had obtained figures on the number of imported cases from Pakistan "through several international sources" and that "their story would have been published regardless of PHE’s involvement".
The spokesperson said the PHE collected data on all imported cases into the UK from all countries but it has not published any of this data. The spokesperson denied that Pakistan was singled out by the PHE but did not have an answer as to why the PHE issued data on Pakistan only and not on any other country.
It is estimated that nearly five times more people came to the UK from India through chartered flights after the coronavirus lockdown was imposed. It is also understood that over 220,000 people came from India after its painful lockdown and just over 50,000 people came from Pakistan in the same period, but only data on Pakistan was provided to media by the PHE.
Racist and Islamophobic attacks, particularly against Pakistani Muslims, have reportedly increased in the aftermath of the misleading story by several British newspapers.
MPs Naz Shah and Afzal Khan also wrote to the these publications' editors, demanding the misleading and baseless stories be brought down, but only headlines were changed in response to their strongly-worded letters.
Brian Cathcart, Professor of Journalism at Kingston University London, wrote a detailed piece forensically analysing the baseless reporting by The Telegraph and other "right-wing" British newspapers.
"As the paper must have expected it would be, this was swiftly repeated in the Sun and MailOnline, to be seen by millions more readers," the professor wrote
"Just as predictably, it soon featured in far-right, anti-Muslim propaganda, which declared — among other things — that this was the explanation for the renewed lockdown in Leicester."
Questioning the paper's credibility, Prof Cathcart added: "This is gravity-free journalism, its content untethered to the real world. Any conscientious editor requires reporters to quote real people and identify them clearly unless there is a strong reason for anonymity.
"That is essential for credibility. Yet, in the whole of this article, only two elements were properly attributed and even with those The Telegraph was scarcely candid."