The eventual passing of England’s Queen Elizabeth II is sure to be the kind of global news event that every publication rushes to cover at once. So when reports of the 95-year-old monarch’s passing began to spread through social media, it was a shocker that the outlet at the heart of the rumors wasn’t a well-connected British legacy magazine, or The New York Times, or even TMZ. It was Hollywood Unlocked, a blog known mostly for celebrity gossip and dramatic headlines aimed at going viral.
The Queen tested positive for COVID-19 on February 20th. A statement from Buckingham Palace declared that she had “mild, cold-like symptoms,” and that she would be performing “light duties,” but provided no other insights.
Then things got weird. On February 22nnd, Hollywood Unlocked claimed that it had “sources close to the palace” who revealed exclusively that Elizabeth had passed. The alleged scoop came from a guest at British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful’s wedding, which, according to Hollywood Unlocked, the Queen was supposed to attend.
Backlash was immediate, with people both doubting the legitimacy of Hollywood Unlocked’s sourcing and wondering how, if the Queen really did die, that information would make it to their platform before it got anywhere else? Instagram quickly flagged the Hollywood Unlocked posts about the Queen as “False Information” and the meme machine began firing on all cylinders.
Jason Lee, the CEO of Hollywood Unlocked, was adamant that his site did not get the story wrong, and posted about the controversy several times on Twitter. “We don’t post lies and I always stand by my sources. Waiting for an official statement from the Palace,” he wrote on the 22nd. The next day, he said an account that had posted a retraction was “fake” and that Hollywood Unlocked had not retracted its story.
“I would never post something like this if the person that told me, I did not trust,” Lee told BuzzFeed on the 23rd. “People are asking why we posted without allowing the royal family or the Palace to release a statement. Why? Because we break stories. And I’ve broken many stories that have been factual. We have never been wrong.”
Lee has been a visible figure in entertainment media for a while now, initially through his time on Love & Hip-Hop: Hollywood. In January, he scored a sitdown interview with Kanye West. While the drama around the Queen story was unfolding, Lee was sharing updates from West’s Donda 2 live event in Miami.
In that same BuzzFeed interview, Lee said that his source was not related to the Queen or an employee of the British royal family. He believed that they “reacted emotionally to a few people, and those few people were informed that that’s what happened.” BuzzFeed itself confirmed with Buckingham Palace that the Queen had spoken to Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the 23rd, and noted that she was not on any “published guest lists” for Enninful’s wedding.