By the time Cambridge University spokesman Tim Holt was able to issue a statement denying my story early on Wednesday afternoon, it had already taken on a life of its own. The news that Professor Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Timeand Britain’s most famous physicist, was canceling his headline appearance at a conference hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres in solidarity with the Palestinian academic boycott had swept the Web and percolated through the blogosphere.
Renowned British scientist Stephen Hawking arrives at the Bloomfield Museum of Science in Jerusalem in December 2006. (Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty Images) (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty)
My original exclusive on the website of the Guardian newspaper had racked up a massive 60,000 Facebook shares in a single morning, and the story was dominating radio news headlines and Web talkbacks across Israel.
But it wasn’t true. I sat and stared at the terse Cambridge University statement and wondered whether this was the worst moment in my career as a professional reporter. Apparently, I had got the story—my biggest story to date—completely wrong. “Professor Hawking will not be attending the conference in Israel in June for health reasons—his doctors have advised against him flying,” said the university.
Twelve hours earlier, I had been told a very different version by officials at the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP). They had published a brief note on Tuesday evening with, they said, the approval of Hawking’s personal assistant announcing his withdrawal from the fifth Facing Tomorrow Presidential Conference. They told me that he had written a brief letter to the Israeli president changing his mind and making his reasons clear in terms that BRICUP described as “his independent decision to respect the boycott, based upon his knowledge of Palestine, and on the unanimous advice of his own academic contacts there.”