On 12 May, Robbie Travers sent Esme Allman, a fellow student at Edinburgh University, a Facebook message.
“Hey Esme, just to let you know multiple news agencies have been delivered [sic] your comments on calling black men trash. You might want to think about saying that in future, some have been linked it [sic] to neo-Nazism.”
The ill-crafted words were at best half-truths and at worst outright lies. But there was a nugget of fact beneath them, which Travers could melt and remould. Allman had indeed said “trash”. But the context, which Travers did not mention, could not have been further from neo-Nazism. Allman was in a Facebook group for black and ethnic minority students at Edinburgh. Its members talked about the abuse Serena Williams received when she announced she had fallen in love with a white man. Black men who insulted a black woman for marrying the love of her life were “trash”, Allman declared. Harsh words, but understandable in the circumstances. Whatever their colour, trolls are trash, after all.
Travers appeared to have been monitoring Allman like a secret policeman looking for a dirty secret. And – Eureka! – he had found it. Or rather he had found an unexceptional opinion he could twist to make a black woman look like the very racists she opposes. He announced to his thousands of Facebook followers: “I will be unveiling a racist elected to the anti-racist post at Edinburgh University.”
In view of what was to happen next, it is worth noting that Travers was the prig. He was trying to punish Allman for her words and thoughts, not the other way round. Allman thought he was harassing her and reported him to Edinburgh University for allegedly breaking its code of conduct (he was eventually cleared of this charge).
So what? Student politics is so vicious because it matters so little, as the cynical wisdom has it. Two students were shouting at each other on Facebook. Who cares?
About half the news organisations in Britain was the answer. If Travers’ claim that “multiple news agencies have been delivered” twisted extracts of Allman’s conversation about Serena Williams were true, none of the media rose to the bait. But, earlier this month, Travers gave multiple news agencies a story that was much more to their liking.
The Mail, the Sun, Trump’s propaganda network Fox News, Putin’s propaganda network Russia Today, the Express, the Times, which broke the “story”, and the far-right US sites Infowars and Breitbart assured their gullible readers that Travers was the victim of the latest politically correct insanity. It wasn’t just the rightwing press. The Independent, the Mirror, and papers across Europe loved the story.
They repeated every word of Travers’ new allegation that Allman had accused him of Islamophobia for “mocking Islamic State on Facebook”. There was no mention of Serena Williams. Travers was no longer the creepy censor trying to make others suffer. He was now the victim of political correctness gone, well, mad.
Edinburgh University’s bureaucrats were going along with the witch-hunt and investigating him for making Muslim and minority students feel “unsafe”, Travers continued. But Robbie would not be intimidated. His cherubic face and flowing locks complemented the heroic image he was so keen to project.
Imagine. Even Isis can’t be criticised now. A black student and a “self-proclaimed feminist” to boot was supporting barbarism and trying to turn its critics into hate criminals. Every rightwing suspicion was confirmed with suspicious ease. In a revealing interview recorded for the Sunday Times, Rod Liddle told Travers: “If it wasn’t for insanities like this, I wouldn’t have a job, so thank you.”
Just so. And it’s not only rightwing journalists who are grateful. With headcounts hacked back and finances in free fall, many news organisations don’t have the resources to check a story. When it so neatly tells their readers what they want to hear, the seductive question arises: do we want to check at all?
Allman told me she never mentioned Isis and the transcript of her complaint bears this out. The university covered its back by saying it wouldn’t “consider bringing charges of misconduct against any student for mocking Isis”. But it left Allman in the lurch.
It told her not to talk to journalists, but refused to tell reporters what the dispute was about. Crucially, it would not confirm or deny that she had mentioned Isis. I spoke to Ronald Kerr, one of Edinburgh University’s extraordinarily large number of press officers, last week. He didn’t know the detail of what had happened and would not find out either. A student’s name has been smeared on two continents but putting the record straight was no concern of his or his university.
Allman has broken her silence now, and given an interview to Edinburgh’s student newspaper. JK Rowling performed a public service by tweeting a link. But it remains the case that for the rest of her life any employer Googling Allman’s name will see dozens of news organisations suggesting that she was a fellow traveller with Isis. They will have to search very hard to find her side of the story.
As someone once remarked, we used to say a lie was halfway round the world before the truth had got its boots on. Now lies are like decrepit satellites that circle the Earth for ever.
The dozens of news sites that spread the fake news about him could not have been expected to know Travers’ reputation. But any journalist making the most cursory of checks would have noticed that his website bears the vainglorious title: The Office of Robbie Travers. As well as saying he is an authority on global politics, the law and just about everything else, Travers claims to be the media manager for the Human Security Centre, an influential foreign policy thinktank. As no one else had bothered to phone, I gave it a call.
“We let him go many months ago,” a senior figure told me. “He was a complete liability. He was never the media manager. He was just junior comms staff, who ran our Twitter account very badly. He’s one of the most bizarre people I’ve ever encountered. Strange so many otherwise smart people still support him.”
Except and alas, it’s not remotely strange to anyone who looks at how partisan newspapers and new media websites work. Liddle had it right. If they started to doubt men such as Travers, they would be out of a job.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist