Forces of Facebook turn on Daily Mirror

Campaign against reporter who dared to criticise Wootton Bassett cavalcade

The status of Wootton Bassett as a touchstone for the emotion generated by the war in Afghanistan was underlined yesterday when a
Daily Mirror journalist was sent death threats after he posted a blog that criticised a charity motorbike ride through the town.

In his posting, Chris Hughes, an experienced war reporter who has written many times on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote: "Now we've seen it all – hundreds of bikers showing their 'solidarity with frontline troops' by trundling their petrol-guzzling and fume-spewing steeds through Wootton Bassett... I wonder if someone – just for a change – could set a trend by doing something they hate doing to raise money for good causes."

He was referring to a procession by 15,000 bikers along Wootton Bassett High Street which is now closely associated with the crowds of residents paying their respects to hearses carrying the bodies of repatriated soldiers.

His comments sparked a furious internet campaign with 5,000 Facebook members calling for a boycott of the title and ended up with the Daily Mirror being forced to apologise for Hughes' posting.

Executives at the paper ordered the blog to be removed from its website after it attracted thousands of critical comments from the biking community, including several apparent death threats aimed at Hughes.

In his posting, Hughes, whose colleague Rupert Hamer, the Sunday Mirror's defence correspondent, was killed in Afghanistan in January, praised the motorcyclists for raising nearly £100,000 for the Afghan Heroes charity helping serving personnel in Afghanistan and bereaved families in Britain but poked fun at the wisdom of the cavalcade through the town last Sunday afternoon.

Internet forums were flooded with comments from indignant bikers and a Facebook site entitled "Boycott the Daily Mirror for insulting the bikers of WB charity run" had by yesterday attracted 5,204 members.

One critic wrote: "Why are people so quick to condemn the enjoyment of others? If you are going to raise money, do it by doing something you enjoy. In fact you should raise more money if you do enjoy it." Another poster added: "I've been a biker for over 25 years now and as such have always been intensely proud of who and what I am. The WB run serves yet again to remind all that bikers, as well as being people of action, fully recognise and honour enormous courage and self-sacrifice."

Because of its proximity to RAF Lyneham, the airbase through which the remains of soldiers killed in Afghanistan are repatriated, Wootton Bassett has been transformed into an unofficial focal point for the paying of respect to the fallen as hearses carrying the remains pass through the small town's High Street en route to the morgue at Oxford's John Radcliffe hospital.

The spontaneous tributes began in April 2007 when two members of the British Legion noticed the hearses shortly after repatriation flights were transferred from RAF Brize Norton to RAF Lyneham and stopped to salute. Residents began to join the informal ceremony and asked if they could be informed in advance of the journeys, starting a tradition which now sees every repatriation observed by onlookers standing up to 10 deep on the pavements.

In a statement issued by the Daily Mirror, Hughes said: "I did apologise for any offence caused by what I wrote and for making light of the sincere efforts of the bikers at Wootton Bassett. The view expressed was my own personal opinion, although I now see that this was inflammatory, given the subject matter."

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