This story was originally published in Spanish on the blog as part of Divorcios por no responder en LINE, chicas que sangran por los ojos y qué le ocurre a la BBC. It’s also included in my book No hemos entendido nada: Qué ocurre cuando dejamos el futuro de la prensa a merced de un algoritmo.
On March 10th 2016, BBC’s website ran a story titled The girl with bleeding eyes and ears – and no diagnosis.
The piece was written by Tracy Ollerenshaw‘s, reporter for Newsbeat, a famous radio news show on BBC 1 focused on stories for young audiences -which has become an euphemism for shocking and often poorly reported stories.
The article was seasoned with several pictures of Marnie-Rae Harvey, a seventeen years old British girl, who, according to Newsbeat, has a rare and undiagnosed illness that make her bleed through her eyes, ears and several other parts of her body.
On March 9th and March 10th, two other British websites known for their appetite for outrageous —and most of the time— fake stories ran their own version of Marnie’s bloody hell. The Sun went with Marnie’s bloody hell: Girl reveals horror of illness that causes her to bleed from the eyes and ears, The Mirror added a bit of drama and capital letters: Girl who BLEEDS from her EYES, EARS and MOUTH describes misery of horrifying condition which leaves her housebound.
Both stories were almost identical, several quotes and snippets were exactly the same, even though none of them mentioned the rival site as a source. The pictures were also the same, both dailies gave credit for them to the «mystery girl», the nickname doctors gave Marnie according to the media sites.
Nor of those articles were Marnie-Rae Harvey story’s debut on British media. Well, to be precise, Marnie Harvie’s story. On December 21st 2015, the reporter Jennifer Tippet published an «exclusive» article on The Sun: The girl who cries BLOOD … the mystery ailment of girl, 18, whose eyes and ears bleed 5 times a day , that covered almost all the same details later revealed by The Sun’s March story, even though there is not a single mention of Tippet’s «exclusive» story, which The Sun ran only two months a half before.
But it was not until Tracy Ollerenshaw, BBC Newsbeat reporter, found Marnie-Rae Harvey, the story got traction on sites all over the world. It seems very safe to say Ms. Ollerenshaw found Ms. Harvey on March 6th. This is a comment the Newsbeat BBC reporter posted on Ms. Harvey’s Instagram account that day:
If you run a Google search looking for Marnie-Rae Harvey or Marnie Harvie, isolating results until March 6th, the only mention is The Sun’s piece from December 28th 2015. According to Google’s search engine Marnie-Rae didn’t exist for the Internet before that, so it is safe to assume Ms. Ollerenshaw got to know about her story because she read Jennifer Tippet’s article for The Sun. Although, she didn’t mention it in the one she published on BBC Newsbeat on March 10th.
Next day, on March 11th, BBC’s Spanish site ran the same story by Tracy Ollerenshaw, now on their Mundo section and titled La joven que sangra por los ojos y nadie sabe por qué.
Once translated, the story got picked up by Spanish language newspapers and news sites all across the world. Some of them credited BBC, others simply copy-pasted it not even bothering to mention the source. Why should they? Once you have that headline and those pictures who has time for trifles? Particularly if the original story comes from one of the most prestigious news brands in the world.
What all those journalist who lifted the story didn’t know is that nowadays not even BBC has time for trifles. Let’s call trifles the minimum verification process a journalist should go through before filing copy. This would have made all of them question at least the authenticity of those pictures and a headline that combines the words: girl, bleeding, eyes.
If you go through the trifles of BBC’s original story, you will realize all the pictures are credited to Gareth Iwan Jones. All of them: the portrait and the other three pictures of Marnie-Rae Harvey bleeding from her eyes and ear, poorly illuminated and looking like if they were taken with an average phone camera.
Let’s see: Gareth Iwan Jones ( www.garethiwanjones.com) is a professional photographer based in Bristol who regularly publishes celebrity portraits on British media. Let’s say it seems offhand that the same photographer responsible for this…
Would be the same guy who selling these pics to the BBC:
So, I sent Mr. Jones a Twitter direct message. He responded immediately and gave me his email address. I emailed him, and he wrote back saying the portrait was his but the other pictures were taken by Marnie herself on her phone.
On a second email, I asked him if he saw Marnie-Rae bleeding while he spent time with her. A few minutes later he responded saying he did not, she didn’t have an «episode» during the session, which lasted a couple of hours.
Also, Mr. Jones told me that if I was interested on the story I should contact Kim from Phoenix Features, «she is Marnie’s media agent and has put the story to the UK media», and he gave me Kim’s email address.
While I was waiting for Mr. Jones’ answer, I also sent an email to BBC Newsbeat editor, ultimate responsible for Ms. Ollerenshaw’s story on the bleeding-eyes girl.
Anna Doble, the editor, emailed me back almost immediately. Short summary: Tracy Ollerenshaw talked to Marnie-Rae Harvey herself. In fact, they had a long chat. «Her case seems genuine.» They have more pictures they didn’t use. They talked to Kim from Phoenix Features about the pictures but finally they got them from Marnie. It was Marnie who told them who should be credited for the photographs. They were in contact with Marnie in order to shoot a video with her next week. And last but not least, the BBC don’t pay for stories.
After my first exchange with BBC Newsbeat editor, I contacted Marnie-Rae Harvey myself. It wasn’t hard, a simple Google search led me to a Twitter account on her name. So, I sent her a message. She answered back a few minutes later, and we started an exchange through DM. I introduced myself, explained my interest on her story and asked for an interview. Three short DMs later, Ms. Harvey directed me to her agent, Kim Willis from Phoenix Features. I asked her if that was the only way to get an interview with her and if she thought Ms. Willis would charge me for it. She answered yes to both questions. I insisted a bit and asked if Newsbeat BBC’d paid for the story too.
Here Ms. Harvey lost her laconic style and said:
«Kim runs phoenixs,bbc and all the other reporters have to email kim first to ask about the story and decide a price for the story,I have more pictures of the bleeding which haven’t been published yet,but it depends on what your willing to pay» (sic)
Phoenix Features advertises itself on its website ( http://www.phoenixfeatures.co.uk/ ) as an agency to «sell your story» and promises «getting you the best deal available for your real life story». Straightforward. «Are you looking to sell your story? You’ve come to the right place. We will able to tell straight away if we think we can help you to sell a true life story» (sic)
Which stories sell well? Phoenix Features has the answer:
- Anything bizzare or heart warming
- Love against the odds
- Odd couples, surprise events, acts of friendship
- Handling Press Attention
- Funny or Crazy Pictures
- Health Story
- Surviving Illness Stories
- Funny or uplifting Story
- Amazing Pictures
- Celebrity Scandal
After browsing Phoenix Features’ site for a while, I sent an email to Kim Willis, asking if it would be possible to interview Marnie-Rae Harvey, the girl who bleeds through her eyes. Willis emailed back 5 minutes later: «Yes, it is potentially possible but you would have to pay to purchase the story / Marnie’s pictures and contact details.»
How much would it cost? What was included on the price tag? Was this the only way to talk to Ms. Harvey’?
£200 pounds for «a copy of my story and a selection of pictures» . Yes, it was the only way.
Would it be possible to be referred to at least one of the physicians treating her?
Yes, but no. First, Ms. Willis said «one of her many doctors would be happy to talk». That said, «Are you confirming £200 all in?»
I insisted I would need to talk to at least one of the physicians. Mr. Willis now said Marnie is «worried that it would offend her doctors. She can give you quotes from her medical notes but doesn’t want to put you in touch with a doctor.»
That was the end of my exchange with Phoenix Features. Few days later I sent Ms. Willis a new email saying I’d need at least one doctor confirming Marnie-Rae’s story. I’ve never heard back from her.
Two weeks after my last exchange with Newsbeat BBC editor, Ms. Anna Doble, I sent her an email asking if they had already shot Marnie-Rae Harvey like she said they will 16 days ago. I also told her I contacted Phoenix Features, but Kim Willis said I had to pay for an interview with Ms. Harvey.
Ms. Doble emailed me back almost an hour later: They haven’t shot the video with Marnie-Rae, they’ve «decided to give Marnie a month or so before trying to film. We only paid to use the photos.»
I responded immediately: Which pictures? The portrait by Gareth Iwan Jones or the other pictures Marnie-Rae took with her phone?
I also wanted to know if she and the reporter find suspicious the fact that only Marnie and her family had seen the bleeding? Or that Marnie and her PR didn’t want to disclose the name of any of the physicians treating her?
A few hours later, Doble said: «We also spoke to her mother. We paid a very small fee for the images».
I only could insist: Do you normally pay for pictures directly to the source? Isn’t it weird that the mother says the bleeding never stops but Marnie-Rae was not bleeding when your reporter interviewed her (she did interview her in person, right?) or when Gareth photographed her?
Newsbeat BBC editor emailed back: «We spoke to her on the phone».
So, this is what I knew so far:
- A Newsbeat BBC reporter —Tracy Ollerenshaw— published an incredible story about a British teenager who claims she bleeds through her eyes and ears. No one aside the girl herself and her mother had seen her bleed. Newsbeat BBC editor, Anna Doble, admits her reporter, Ms. Ollerenshaw, only interviewed her subject over the phone.
- An agency, whose business is to sell stories to media outlets, and also represents Marnie-Rae Harvey’s interests, sold the girls’ pictures and testimony to whoever is willing to pay for them. Newsbeat BBC editor, Anna Doble, admitted they paid, although only for the pictures.
- The agency who represents and sells Marnie-Rae Harvey story refused to give the name and contact of any of the numerous physicians who allegedly treated the girl who bleeds through her eyes.
- Both the reporter and editor of Newsbeat BBC decided that was alright and went ahead without checking Marnie’s and her mother’s testimony. They don’t have any other source —a neighbor, a school friend, a doctor—, none of them had seen her bleed, and they go ahead even when Marnie’s illness is so rare that, if confirmed, it would make her one of only two documented cases of haemolacria —the medical term for crying blood— in the world.
- Hundreds of sites all around the world replicated the fabulous story of Marnie-Rae Harvey, the girl who bleeds through her eyes and ears, without even pausing to verify it.
Trifles, you know.
At this point I am unable to verify whether Marnie-Rae Harvey really bleeds through her eyes and ears, although it seems highly unlikely. I didn’t pay the £200 her agent, Kim Willis, asked for the story. When I pushed for the doctors’ contact and made it clear that without them I had no story, I never heard from the agent again.
Ms. Ollerenshaw and Ms. Doble weren’t able to verify the story either. Not with the reporting they had conducted so far. A phone conversation with the girl and the pictures herself charged them for the right to publish are all they had to corroborated an astonishing and groundbreaking medical story. That’s it. Trifles, indeed.
On Wednesday July 26th 2017, after another story published on No hemos entendido nada went viral and drew attention to this one, BBC Mundo’s site deleted La joven que sangra por los ojos y nadie sabe por qué:
So far, they haven’t comment on it. You can still read BBC Newsbeat original article in English.