The Times and the Tower Hamlets foster care story: bad journalism
Since the Times published its front-page story ‘Christian child forced into Muslim foster care’ on 28 August* we have learned a lot about the case of the Tower Hamlets five-year-old. Little if any of it has been to the credit of the paper or its reporter, Andrew Norfolk.
The Times has encouraged the idea that it was bravely raising the alarm about a matter of public concern and that its critics seek to silence it for reasons of political correctness. This misses the point.
Norfolk’s original story is bad journalism, apparently inaccurate in many essential details, certainly lacking in balance and showing insufficient research.
If the Times were a responsible newspaper and cared about the quality of information it placed before its readers it would revisit the subject thoroughly and present an amended account of what is a complex and delicate affair.
This amended account would include a clear acknowledgement that several specific claims made in its original story are now disputed or denied outright by the local authority – and apparently by relevant care workers and by the child’s grandmother, who is now her carer.
These disputed claims are: that the foster carers did not speak English; that they took away the girl’s crucifix; that they refused to let her eat pasta carbonara and that they encouraged her to think Easter was stupid and European women were alcoholics.
Taken by Norfolk from second-hand reports of the testimony of a five-year-old, these were among the most vivid details of his story, providing its shock effect. The Times needs to say now whether it still considers these claims to be accurate, and if so on what evidence.
Further, Tower Hamlets asserts, again citing care workers and the grandmother, that the picture as a whole that was painted in the Times, of a child deeply distressed about her care arrangements, was wrong. Its account is that the child was generally happy with the foster family and now actually misses them. Moreover, it says that throughout this period the child had frequent contact with her mother and grandmother.
If this is true the Times’s story falls apart, so the paper must address the issues directly and without obfuscation. If it disputes the council’s account it should produce evidence, and if it can not produce evidence it should, at the very least, set out the contested position for its readers in a balanced way.
Problems of balance 1
The paper should also account for problems of balance in its original story.
The child was presented in the front-page article as having a simple cultural identity – white, Christian, English-speaking and with a British passport. The contrast with the picture painted of the foster carers was thus stark, helping the paper make its point about the unsuitability of cross-cultural fostering.
But the child’s identity is not simple. She has dual nationality, has lived abroad and may speak two languages. Though she was christened, the local authority says its information is that she has not attended church. Her grandmother, it says, is Muslim and prays at home (suggesting that the child is familiar with Muslim practices).
When Andrew Norfolk published his story on 28 August, did he know any of this? If he did, he should explain why he failed to include it and give it appropriate weight. If he did not know, he should admit that, for want of accurate information – information which a serious journalist would have sought out before publication– his story was unbalanced and misleading.
Problems of balance 2
The account given by the Times of the girl’s domestic circumstances raises problems of balance that are at least as serious.
She was removed from her mother for her own protection by police, as an emergency measure. The reasons, which have been hinted at in court proceedings, need not be discussed here, although it is worth noting that the family court judge has accepted there were grounds for this intervention.
The Times asserted that it chose not to describe these ‘unusual circumstances’ because it wished to protect the child (although since reporting restrictions were in place it was not in fact the Times’s choice). However, the absence of such details had a consequence of which Norfolk and the Times should have been aware: readers were left in ignorance of vital context that would almost certainly have altered their view of the entire story.
Notably, those ‘unusual circumstances’ would be likely to raise doubts among readers about how far it was possible to rely on the judgement or testimony of the mother – something the Times did more than once, at least indirectly, in making its case against the fostering arrangements.
The Times and Andrew Norfolk were justified in withholding details about the mother, but they were not justified in publishing an account of the case which, as a consequence of that omission, was misleading.
The Times has claimed that it was merely ‘reporting the facts as it finds them’. This too is misleading. It reported only some of the facts it found and by its selection it created a warped picture of events. Of the facts it chose to report, moreover, a significant number are now disputed by most parties in the case, as described above.
The paper also asserts that it acted in good faith on the information it had, raising the alarm in the public interest. This can sometimes be a defence, indeed the law says that journalists may be justified in publishing even wrong information where they believe it to be true, if they have acted responsibly and the case is in the public interest.
Norfolk’s story does not pass that test. He says he learned of the case from documents compiled by care workers which, he says, painted the picture he passed on to his readers. But as the above shows, this was certainly not the whole picture and as a journalist he had an obligation to ensure his readers received a balanced account. In short, he needed to ask more questions.
Nor is it an excuse to say, as the Times has, that Tower Hamlets refused to answer the questions. Where answers are not easy to get, journalists are not entitled to act as though they don’t matter. Conscientious journalists try to find the answers in some other way.
And if the Times had felt compelled to publish without the answers, it should have included in its story, somewhere in the first three or four paragraphs, a clear caveat saying that its account risked being incomplete or inaccurate because the local authority was being unhelpful.
It is also significant that at the time of publication due legal process was under way in Tower Hamlets, albeit slowly, and the child was no longer in the care of the foster family at issue. In other words, there was no crisis and this was not an urgent case, so there were no grounds to rush out an incomplete story.
Against this background the Times and Andrew Norfolk cannot reasonably persist in the claim that their critics are merely reluctant to face unwelcome facts about the dangers of cross-cultural fostering. The facts of this case are stacking up against both newspaper and reporter. It is they who are refusing to face them.
* This can be read on the Times website, though it is behind a paywall.