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SARAH VINE: Jay Slater is one more sufferer of trolls

Regular readers of this column – and, indeed, the Mail – will know that I am all in favour of free speech. But there’s free speech – and then there’s just being a mean, opportunistic troll.

A case in point: Katie Hopkins, whose latest online diatribe on the subject of Jay Slater, the 19-year-old lad who has gone missing in Tenerife, is a masterclass in turning someone else’s tragedy into an opportunity for self-serving self-aggrandisement.

‘Some people have been saying that I shouldn’t say anything about Jay Slater because, ooh, his poor mother’, she begins. 

‘Quick message to you people: I’ll say what I bloody well like. My opinions are my opinions, I didn’t ask you to agree with them. And if you want to take the moral high ground you carry along. I never said I was on the moral high ground, and the thing about you being up there is that when I look up I see you’re wearing no knickers.’

Jay, an apprentice bricklayer from Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire, vanished on Tenerife last week

Jay, an apprentice bricklayer from Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire, vanished on Tenerife last week

She goes on to suggest that maybe if someone shouted ‘Domini-oes!’ (as in the pizza) over the mountains in Tenerife he would come running, and mocks people donating to his Go Fund Me page, saying ‘Crack on, you do what you want to do with your money, I guess, just like Jay does with his, which seems to be mostly Class A drugs.’

Well, the first thing to say is that I am wearing knickers. The second is I don’t care how many tickets Hopkins needs to flog for her one-woman show, or how many extra followers or ‘shares’ this kind of thing gets her, it is not only a pretty irresponsible thing to say in a case that may yet turn out to be more serious than we know, it’s also incredibly cruel to make jokes about someone’s missing kid, however troubled he may be.

But perhaps most of all, it encourages countless others to do the same. Hopkins has millions of followers across a variety of social media platforms, which means that jumping on something like this is a golden opportunity for ‘monetisation’.

The more provocative she is, the more attention her posts get, and therefore the more revenue she will make. If she went online and said kind things about Jay, no one would take a blind bit of notice. It’s the bear-baiting that people like. And she – along with many others – has made a career out of it.

There are plenty more who would love to do the same. That is why when cases like Jay’s come along, there is a corresponding explosion of conspiracy theories and keyboard sleuths. They don’t give two hoots about the person concerned; they’re just hoping to cash in. It’s the dark side of human nature, enabled – as ever – by social media.

The most recent victim was the late Dr Michael Mosley, a much-loved colleague at the Daily Mail, whose tragic disappearance in Greece earlier this month sparked a frenzy of ill-informed online speculation, some of it utterly vile and hurtful to his poor widow Clare and their family.

Katie Hopkins issues an online diatribe on the subject of Jay

Katie Hopkins issues an online diatribe on the subject of Jay

Jay with his mother Debbie Duncan, who has been compared by trolls to Karen Matthews, who orchestrated the fake kidnap of her daughter Shannon in 2008

Jay with his mother Debbie Duncan, who has been compared by trolls to Karen Matthews, who orchestrated the fake kidnap of her daughter Shannon in 2008

The 19-year-old in a nightclub in the early hours with his female friend Lucy Law just hours before he disappeared in Tenerife

The 19-year-old in a nightclub in the early hours with his female friend Lucy Law just hours before he disappeared in Tenerife

A similar thing happened in the case of Nicola Bulley in Lancashire, who had her entire character – including highly confidential medical information – dragged through the mud after she disappeared last January.

Even after the coroner ruled that her death had been accidental, most likely the result of slipping down a steep bank into a cold river where she sadly drowned, the vultures kept going, picking over the bones of her case to the point where her distraught family had to issue a statement begging them to stop.

The reaction to Bulley’s disappearance was described as a ‘carnival of hysteria’, as hordes of ‘influencers’, psychics and general cranks descended on the Lancashire village where she lived, posting updates to their social media feeds. It got so bad that police had to issue dispersal orders.

Even the Princess of Wales, absent temporarily from the limelight for cancer treatment, has been targeted. And it goes beyond mere concern for the person’s welfare or whereabouts – it’s an active desire to stir things up or put forward toxic gossip as truth.

In the case of Jay, people are doing very nicely out of his increasingly worrying situation. The fact that the hunt is now entering its tenth day, while no doubt a source of distress to his worried family, only means more opportunities for people to jump on the bandwagon and potentially cash in.

As well as Hopkins, David Icke has piped up, suggesting he’s been trafficked. A Facebook page, ‘Jay Slater Missing’, has already racked up over half a million followers. Ching, ching.

Jay’s chequered past – he was recently convicted for his part in a violent, drug-related assault on another teenage boy in 2021 – has also triggered personal attacks on his family. His mother Debbie has been compared to Karen Matthews, who orchestrated the fake kidnap of her daughter Shannon in 2008, and has received various threats, online and to her mobile.

The late Dr Michael Mosley's tragic disappearance in Greece earlier this month sparked a frenzy of ill- informed online speculation

The late Dr Michael Mosley’s tragic disappearance in Greece earlier this month sparked a frenzy of ill- informed online speculation

A similar thing happened in the case of Nicola Bulley in Lancashire, who went missing last year

A similar thing happened in the case of Nicola Bulley in Lancashire, who went missing last year

God only knows what’s happened to the lad. Clearly, he’s no angel – but to be perfectly honest, neither are most kids his age, especially when they’re on a night out at a rave. They think they can handle themselves, but often they can’t. They succumb to all sorts of temptations which can make them do very stupid things.

And a lot of them just don’t realise the dangers. Every year, as the holiday season gets under way, there are more and more reports of young Britons being targeted by gangs abroad, especially in places such as Spain, where recent anti-tourist sentiment has reached troubling levels and where lads like Jay are seen as sitting ducks for criminal gangs.

I wrote about this last year, after a British man was allegedly beaten to death by bouncers in Cyprus and a 21-year-old died after he tried to break up a fight in Ibiza.

Young, naive holiday-makers with rather too much swagger are easy prey, as I know from personal experience. Last year, my son (who is also 19) went to Croatia with a group of friends to celebrate the end of their A-levels.

Around half-past two one morning, I was woken by a persistent buzzing of my phone. It was my son, somewhat worst for wear and hysterical. He had become separated from his friends in a nightclub and had ordered a cab back to their shared house.

But the guy then demanded an extra 60 euros on top of the fare, and when he refused, locked the doors and drove him to another part of town.

After a frankly terrifying set of exchanges, I managed to transfer the necessary funds, and my idiot boy (never get separated from your mates, it’s the golden rule) was set free to sleep off his ordeal.

I was livid with him for being so irresponsible – not least because the whole thing almost gave me an aneurism. But it was a very useful life lesson for him. He’s not half as reckless now as he was then.

I hope and pray that young Jay is as lucky, and that he is found safe and sound having, hopefully, learnt a lesson or two.

One thing’s for sure, though. If he is, it will be no thanks to the likes of Katie Hopkins and the armies of big-mouthed trolls that march under the banner of free speech – but who are really just grubby profiteers in other people’s misery.