Home Secretary Priti Patel is at the centre of a ‘fake news’ smear campaign over false claims that she wasted tens of thousands of taxpayers’ money on eyebrow-grooming treatments.
Social-media sites were being used to spread the story after an article was published by a website which highlighted a string of ‘perplexing’ expense claims submitted by the Home Office, including £77,000 spent with an eyebrow beauty treatment company and £5,400 at fashion retailer Primark.
On Twitter, people freely accused Ms Patel of abusing public money by having her eyebrows done (despite the fact these were Home Office expenses rather than expenses she had claimed personally) as a string of offensive images of her were posted.
The story started in February when migrants rights campaigner Mary Atkinson posted online a list of items bought last year using Home Office procurement cards
Those who joined in the smear included Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell, who accused Ms Patel of a ‘disgusting waste of public money’.
Others duped into believing the false spin on the story were a deputy head teacher, a presenter for LBC radio, a student union president, a panellist on Jeremy Vine’s Channel 5 show and union activists.
Ms Patel was defended by the Home Office revealing the truth: that officials had in fact bought life-saving PPE and hand sanitiser from the beauty companies, and clothes for asylum-seekers from Primark. Nothing was for Ms Patel personally.
‘It is completely false to say the Home Office has spent money on beauty products, it was PPE,’ the Home Office said. ‘The spending with Primark was for asylum-seekers who would have not had appropriate clothing when arriving in the UK.’
Last night Tory MP Giles Watling, a member of the Commons Media Select Committee, said: ‘This is a very serious issue. Such misinformation and fake news not only brings online harm, it also can change the face of the way that people vote.’
The story started in February when migrants rights campaigner Mary Atkinson posted online a list of items bought last year using Home Office procurement cards.
‘Basically I’m baffled – happy to hear any theories,’ she wrote on Twitter. ‘The data is here (excited for the rest of it to be released).’
Her tweets went unnoticed for five weeks until Byline Times, which claims to report ‘what the papers don’t’, cited them in an ‘exclusive’ story. Its article, written by a former BBC journalist, said the Home Office had spent £30,000 with the company Global Beauty Products and £77,000 with a firm called SP Beautiful Brows. Almost £4,000 was spent at a restaurant called Pollyanna and £900 at The Magdalen Arms, a pub in Oxford. Another £2,000 was spent with a ‘diet consultant’.
The Home Office yesterday said the pub and restaurant were used as training venues, while the ‘diet consultant’ was actually a company organising international travel.
The story quickly went viral and by Friday, thousands were tweeting about it. Peter Jukes, an editor at Byline Times, commented: ‘I see Priti Patel, Primark and “Beautiful Brows” are trending.’
Brian Cathcart, a professor of journalism at Kingston University who set up the anti-press lobby group Hacked Off, also shared the article.
Left-wing actor and comedian David Schneider wrote: ‘What there isn’t money for: Proper pay rise for nurses. What there is money for: £77k for eyebrows.’ Doctored images began circulating online of Ms Patel with extra-large eyebrows and one with them drawn in thick marker pen. Among those taken in by the claims was Jemma Forte, a broadcaster on the Jeremy Vine show, who described Ms Patel’s alleged spending as ‘shameful’. She deleted her tweet yesterday after being contacted for comment by the MoS and said: ‘Since the truth of the matter is now debatable, I have deleted my tweet as I personally never want to be responsible for spreading fake news.’
Those who joined in the smear included Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell (pictured), who accused Ms Patel of a ‘disgusting waste of public money’
Mental health campaigner and broadcaster Natasha Devon tweeted that she was ‘attempting to come up with Priti Patel eyebrow-based puns’ for her radio show on LBC. She also tweeted a picture of a woman whose eyebrows were made up of gems. Yesterday, 11 minutes after being contacted by the MoS, Ms Devon tweeted the Home Office’s rebuttal of the false claims.
The controversy comes at a time when social-media platforms stand accused of deciding what news the public can read and without the regulatory and legal controls which govern the mainstream media.
Byline’s editor Hardeep Matharu said its article was ‘entirely accurate’ and not written to ‘personally disparage, or encourage any disparagement’ of Ms Patel. She said the story had highlighted that Global Beauty Products also appears to sell PPE and that it did not state that the spending was Ms Patel’s personal expenses.
‘Byline Times absolutely rejects any suggestion whatsoever that, through this article, it spread “fake news”, as you state, or engaged in any kind of misleading or irresponsible journalism, or encouraged this of readers of the article.’
Byline Times asked the Home Office for comment in advance of publishing their article.