Last December, when a British Muslim family of 11 was barred by U.S. officials from boarding a flight from London to Los Angeles, British tabloid columnist and television personality Katie Hopkins immediately assumed something sinister was at play.
Mohammed Tariq Mahmood, his brother and nine of their children were scheduled to fly to Disneyland for vacation on Dec. 15, 2015, having saved up for months to make the trip. But authorities at London’s Gatwick Airport turned them away without explanation, prompting outrage from critics who argued the Mahmoods were targeted because of their faith.
Hopkins, a writer for Mail Online, found the family’s story inconceivable. Authorities must have had a sound reason for barring them, she said. In two columns for the right-leaning tabloid, she not only suggested they lied about the nature of their trip — she accused the family of having ties to al-Qaeda.
“You can’t blame America for not letting this lot travel to Disneyland — I wouldn’t either,” she said in a Dec. 23, 2015, post that has since been taken down. In a column later in the month, she posted a photo of the family’s home and accused one of the sons of publishing “extremist material” sympathizing with the terrorist group on a Facebook page.
Hopkins’s accusations were entirely false. The family had no ties to extremists.
Now, after letting the incorrect statements linger for nearly a year, Mail Online has retracted the columns and agreed to pay £150,000 (about $186,000) in libel damages to the family, the BBC reported.
In a statement Monday, the tabloid admitted the accusations were false and apologized to the Mahmood family, saying it was “happy to make clear” that family members were not extremists, nor did they have ties to al-Qaeda. The tabloid also apologized for publishing the photo of the family’s home and for alleging that the son was involved in the supposed extremist Facebook page.
“They were traveling to the USA with their families to see one of their brothers for a holiday in California and they had indeed planned to visit Disneyland as part of their trip,” the statement read.
Mail Online added: “We and Katie Hopkins apologise to the Mahmood family for the distress and embarrassment caused.”
Hopkins offered no words of her own, but tweeted a link to the statement at about 2 a.m. London time Monday.
Mohammed Tariq Mahmood and his brother Mohammed Zahid Mahmood said they were pleased that Mail Online had corrected the record “after a great deal of dragging their heels,” but called on Hopkins to personally apologize to the family. In an interview with the BBC, Tariq Mahmood said he worried anti-Muslim sentiment would not go away.
“Once you drill a hole in the wall, you can fill it but the mark will always be there,” he said.
Hopkins and a Mail Online spokesman didn’t immediately respond to emails seeking comment on Tuesday.
Tariq Mahmood told The Washington Post last December that it was their children who first proposed going to Disneyland last year. After saving for months, he said, the family spent more than $13,000 on tickets. He said they applied for a visa waiver through the Department of Homeland Security and were able to check in at the airport on the day of their flight without trouble.
Minutes before they were set to board, however, a border security official told the brothers that officials in Washington had canceled their right to travel, Mahmood said.
“The kids saw right away that we had our heads down,” he told The Post at the time. “They never see us like that, so they realized something was wrong. They had tears in their eyes.”
U.S. officials didn’t disclose why they had barred the family, but denied that religion played a role. The decision led advocacy groups and others to call for an investigation into whether then-candidate Trump’s calls for a ban on Muslims entering the country had anything to do with it.
Hopkins’s columns attacking the Mahmoods were hardly the first of her pieces to draw controversy. Once a contestant on the BBC series “The Apprentice,” Hopkins has made something of a brand out of her outlandish views, coming under fire in recent years for ridiculing overweight people, saying she wouldn’t allow her children to play with poor children, and comparing migrants to “cockroaches.”
Just before she wrote her columns about the Mahmoods, president-elect Donald Trump praised her on Twitter for “powerful writing on the U.K.’s Muslim problems.”
“Thank you sir,” she replied. “You have support in the UK.”
Tariq and Zahid Mahmood said in a statement Monday that officials still haven’t told them why the family wasn’t allowed to fly to Disneyland. For the past year, Hopkins’s columns only rubbed salt in the wound, they said.
“Matters are not helped when such sensationalist and, frankly, Islamophobic articles such as this are published, and which caused us all a great deal of distress and anxiety,” they said. “We are very pleased that the record has been set straight.”