20 years ago this summer, Doncaster was thrust into the glare of a media spotlight the like of which the town had never seen before.
It was 1998 – and it was the year that Doncaster was branded as the AIDS capital of the UK in one of the most shocking stories ever to emerge in the town.
The World Cup in France was dominating headlines elsewhere, but in Doncaster there was only one story – and that was the lurid exploits of a nightclub bouncer by the name of Steve Robson whose attitude to casual sex had seen a spike in the number of cases of HIV in the town.
When the local health authority issued a press release about a rise in cases of HIV – twice the national average at the time – alarm bells began to ring – and the blame was placed firmly at the door of Robson, a bouncer on the town’s party scene who claimed to have bedded more than 1,000 women.
A total of 10 cases had been identified – and when Robson was revealed to be the source of what appeared to the UK’s first heterosexual AIDS cluster, the media circus descended on Doncaster.
Banner headlines proclaimed Doncaster as the AIDS capital of Britain, TV cameras and reporters stalked out Robson’s house in Westminster Crescent, Intake and scores of newspapers visited the town’s pubs and clubs to take in a taste of the party scene and hedonistic lifestyle being blamed for the AIDS outbreak.
Former Doncaster Star journalist Jane Whitham who covered the story at the time said: “Yes, Doncaster has always been a bit of a party town but this was totally out of proportion.
“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 had supposedly got HIV a decade earlier while 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 all of a sudden, scores of women Robson had slept with were telling their stories. He was known to have infected at least five women.
Gory details of one night stands and sleazy sex were relayed to a global audience and as reporters pieced together a picture of Robson’s rather busy sex life, fears escalated as Doncaster struggled to shake off its unwanted tag.
A helpline for concerned women worried they might have the virus was set up as reporters beseiged Robson’s rundown house.
Added Jane: “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.”
Eventually, things quietened down and the media circus died down – but the tag stuck and for years afterwards, the mere mention of Doncaster would normally be followed by a reference to AIDS.
The following summer, there was a follow-up and a conclusion to the story – Robson died from AIDS in July 1999, aged 42.
But the stain of Robson remained – and it was suggested that the town would take generations to recover from his string of sexual conquests with women in doorways and alleys.
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