The news landscape has been dominated this week by the heart-wrenching story of five-year-old Ashya King and his parents. Since Brett and Naghmeh King took their young son – suffering from brain cancer – from Southampton General Hospital last week in order to pursue proton beam therapy in the Czech Republic, their story has been headline news.
Now Brett and Naghmeh, who have been released from prison in Spain, have briefed the world’s media on their torment whilst unable to see their grievously ill son, telling the BBC how they ‘cried and prayed’ while their ‘heart was aching’ to see Ashya.
The astonishing development of their story, and how their depiction in the British media changed dramatically from a family seemingly recklessly risking their son’s cancer treatment to victims of an over-zealous Crown Prosecution Service and police who thoughtlessly separated a family, can be credited in part to the tremendous powers of social media.
When the European arrest warrant and temporary wardship order was made at the end of last week, Ashya’s disappearance became headline news – without any context as to the reasons his family chose to remove him from hospital in the UK.
The public were left to draw their own conclusions, until the family employed social media. Ashya’s brother Naveed put up a YouTube video showing Brett speaking intelligently and emotionally about the family’s reasons for taking Ashya.
The tide began to turn, and when the news broke that Ashya was being kept in a Spanish hospital while his parents had been arrested on suspicion of child cruelty, barred from seeing their sick son and kept in a notorious prison near Madrid as they fought extradition, the public backlash was overwhelming.
Hundreds of thousands took to social media to protest – on Twitter, sharing links and videos on Facebook and more than 200,000 signed a petition on Change.org to reunite Ashya with his parents.
The power of this online momentum was undeniable. Soon, prominent politicians David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Boris Johnson were all speaking out in favour of the King family, and the CPS withdrew the arrest warrant on 2nd September.
On Wednesday, Brett King spoke movingly at their attempt to prevent Ashya from being turned ‘into a vegetable’ and that he had ‘no regrets’, despite the fact his family had been ‘treated like terrorists’.
It remains to be seen what will happen to Ashya and his family. But in using social media to tell their side of the story, the Kings were able to bring about real change and build a groundswell of supportive public opinion that became impossible for the authorities to ignore.