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Page last updated at 15:22 GMT, Monday, 27 July 2009 16:22 UK
The man who gave Doncaster AIDS
Jane Whitham
Former Doncaster Star journalist

Steve Robson
Steve Robson who sold his story to the Daily Mail

It is any journalist's dream to work in what's known in the trade as a "newsy patch."

South Yorkshire has certainly had its fair share of big stories over the years and in 1998 they didn't come much bigger than the Steve Robson story.

At the time I was working as a journalist on The Doncaster Star. We had a team of seven reporters based in a little district office on Duke Street, Doncaster, and as most of us lived and worked in Doncaster we had a pretty good knowledge of local affairs.

When the local health authority issued a press release warning about a rise in cases of HIV and pointing the finger at the local nightclub scene, warning bells sounded.

Yes, Doncaster has always been a bit of a party town but this was totally out of proportion.

A total of 10 cases of HIV had been identified - twice the national average at the time - and it didn't take long before sources linked the outbreak to one man.

The Star was first with the story about how one man called Steve Robson, a womanising nightclub bouncer, had supposedly gone on to infect several women.

In the time you can say 'moral panic' the town was gripped by a fear which knew no bounds. Doncaster appeared to have produced the UK's first heterosexual AIDS cluster and put a totally new spin on AIDS reporting.

Robson was a self confessed womaniser and had often boasted he'd slept with more than 1000 women.

He'd reportedly got HIV a decade earlier whilst living in Amsterdam. Apparently he didn't know he was infected until a routine blood test in 1996 revealed the virus. The infected women had been partners prior to 1996 but this was almost irrelevant to the media pack.

It didn't take long for the gory details to leak out and for Robson's partners, one night stands and anyone he'd ever winked at, to contact the media.

Some were genuinely concerned, some were looking for a quick buck and some were just after their 15 minutes of fame.

As national newspaper hacks and television crews piled into Doncaster and 'friends and sources' helped reporters piece together a picture of Robson's rather busy sex life, fears escalated.

It must have been a public relations nightmare for the local health authority which had to balance its responsibility to safeguard public health with its commitment to patient confidentiality.

It was hard to separate fact from fiction and the health authority's hands were often tied. As a result, everyone knew the name Steve Robson.

The health authority set up a helpline for concerned women and local nightclubs were besieged with filming requests. The chip shop down in Intake had never been so busy as journalists queued for lunch.

As local reporters we jostled with the national media to interview Steve Robson as he lay low at his ex council semi.

We pushed persuasive letters through his door and tried to talk to him through the curtains. As local reporters we promised we'd be fair and non judgmental and explained how we'd still be in Doncaster when the media scrum had gone home.

We explained how we were genuinely concerned about people's health and wanted to set the story straight in order to help the health authority build a picture about the scale of the cluster.

In the end, I suspect money talked. Steve Robson sold his story to the Daily Mirror and the rest of us were left with crumbs.

The media scrum did go home in the end and most probably returned, albeit briefly, when Robson later died from AIDS in July 1999.

What didn't go away for a long time was the dreadful stain the entire episode left on Doncaster - a town which, for a short while, became synonymous with casual sex.

Thankfully, like the media, time moves on and the whole episode, as tragic as it was, is now a memory. On reflection, the story is as sad today as it was then.




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