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The Times's response to the Unmasked report

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Brian CathcartLondon
The Times's response to the Unmasked report
A leading article purportedly defending the journalism of Andrew Norfolk fails to address the substance and resorts to bluster and falsehood

Under the headline 'Press Gang: The Times view on media campaigners and Andrew Norfolk' the Times has offered its first response to our report on the recent journalism of the paper's chief investigative reporter. Here I examine the editorial closely. The words of the Times are given in italics. 

Politically motivated campaigners are trying to smear and suppress fine reporting

This line, given below the headline, smacks of the demented despot. We published a detailed report, based on careful research., while the Times is throwing around rhetoric. Who here is doing the smearing?

The Times journalist Andrew Norfolk has become the target of an extraordinary personal attack.

‘Extraordinary’? It is certainly unusual. ‘Personal’? We have written nothing whatever about his personality, lifestyle or history; our criticisms relate purely to his recent journalism. Journalism is public and must be open to criticism.

A 72-page pamphlet, co-authored by a founder of the campaign group Hacked Off, accuses Norfolk of writing articles that ‘tended to encourage fear of Muslims’, and of breaching standards of professional conduct and ethics.

It does. Interestingly that is the last you will hear in this editorial about Norfolk and professional ethics, which happens to be the subject matter of our report. The Times appears not to want to engage with that.

This is a mischievous and ideologically motivated attempt to smear a reporter long recognised as one of the bravest and most scrupulous in his field.

We’ll come back to motivations, but let’s be clear about the role of Norfolk’s record. He has in the past won awards and admiration, as our report mentions more than once,  but no one could possibly argue that that raises him above scrutiny. He continues to be bound, in principle at least, by the same ethical standards as any other journalist and if he breaches those standards it should be pointed out.

The attackers have form. When Norfolk revealed for the first time the systematic sexual abuse of white teenagers by men of mainly Pakistani background in Rotherham and other northern towns, he also revealed the complicity of social workers, police and local councillors who failed to stop the grooming. They failed for fear of being accused of racism. That fear proved deeply entrenched.

Where is this going?

Norfolk’s work was eventually honoured with the Orwell Prize, the Paul Foot Award and with journalist of the year awards, but not before it had been fiercely disparaged by groups determined to recast the story in terms of Islamophobia. Norfolk’s critics fell silent only when overwhelming evidence emerged in the press, courts and public inquiries that forced the country to confront a deeply rooted pattern of criminal behaviour with a clear ethnic component.

Not one word of this is relevant to whether Andrew Norfolk breached ethical standards in the preparation and publication of three series of articles that were fundamentally wrong. (Nor, incidentally, did I disparage Norfolk's work at the time he was winning awards.) 

This week’s report focuses on three stories covered by Norfolk in 2017 and last year.

That much is correct. No mention of its title. The authors are not actually named. Our long experience in journalism is not mentioned. (Coincidentally, one of the accusations we level against Norfolk is that he omitted relevant information from his reports.) 

All concerned matters of significant public interest. 

This is an understatement. All of them presented Muslims as threatening, without justification, at a time when Muslims were suffering peak levels of hate crime. The dangers are obvious and on that basis there was a compelling case for exercising great care over accuracy to ensure hatred was not recklessly encouraged. Our report found no sign of that. 

Two examined possible failures of care by local authorities while the third considered the conduct of a charity.

This is devious. Norfolk, when he wrote these stories, did not describe or draw attention to possible failures; he alleged that there had been actual failures. And it is clear that these failures did not happen. And Times editorials of the time piled in to support Norfolk's line. So he was wrong and the Times was wrong – on these matters of significant public interest.

Two articles were the subject of complaints to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), the regulatory body to which The Times belongs. Ipso properly declined to consider complaints that were politically motivated and from people in no position to know the facts.

This refers to the notorious filtering process by which IPSO eliminates many complaints from consideration – a process condemned in the Leveson Inquiry report.

Complaints from interested and informed parties — a local authority and the charity — were investigated by Ipso’s complaints committee.

‘Investigated’ is hardly the word, though it is certainly a word used by IPSO itself. It does not investigate. It makes no effort whatsoever to find facts. This is because IPSO was designed with great care to serve the interests of its press masters, who would rather not be confronted with unwelcome facts.

The Times was found to have breached the Editors’ Code on one point in each case; other points of complaint were dismissed. The Times accepted the regulator’s decisions and took the remedial action required.

In the infamous case of the ‘Christian child forced into Muslim foster care’ (a shocking fiasco that this editorial carefully avoids mentioning) IPSO refused to consider any complaint relating to the principal article. It dealt with one aspect of a report on the third day of the affair, and found that the Times had been wrong to describe a court judgment as a failure by Tower Hamlets council. This minor ruling hardly rectified the shameful inaccuracy of the reports about the child and about the totally innocent foster carers. In the other case, IPSO was satisfied that the Times had provided ‘sufficient remedy’ – for an inaccuracy so grievous it ruined a perfectly legitimate charity – by publishing a weasel-worded paragraph, with no apology and no acknowledgement of error, on page 24 of its Christmas Eve edition.

The groups behind this latest attack on Norfolk are campaigners for what they tendentiously call “reform” of the media. By this, they mean statutory regulation and the suppression of content at odds with their own narrow agenda.

This is a ludicrous fantasy on the part of the Times. It bears no relation to what we believe. I for one am a supporter of press regulation that is rigorously independent of both political control and press industry control – regulation that acts in the interests of the public, as the Leveson Report recommended.

Implacably hostile to independent self-regulation embodied by Ipso, most would force the press to sign up instead to the state-approved regulator Impress, funded by Max Mosley.

I plead guilty to an implacable hostility to sham self-regulation of the kind peddled by IPSO. It cheats the public and facilitates sloppy, dishonest and cruel journalism – the current state of the corporate press bears eloquent testimony to this. And as the Times knows, Max Mosley is barred by law from having any influence over Impress: all the desperate attempts to prove otherwise in court, by the Times and its allies in the press, ended in abject defeat.

In the words of one contributor to the new report, to criticise their thinking — in opinion columns or in a leading article such as this — is to provide “an editorial bedrock for news reporting that characterises Muslims as extreme, intolerant and threatening [and to] support it as brave and necessary even when it takes place against a background of rising hate crime”. That argument is as false as it is dangerous.

Empty rhetoric. Even when it can bring itself to quote from our report it fails to place it correctly in context – 'to criticise their thinking' are the Times's words and they are misleading – and fails to address the substance of the point. 

Though the authors hedge their invective with caveats, the intent is clear. It is to deter and hamstring journalists from investigating controversial stories.

We believe we have found a very prominent investigative journalist making repeated mistakes and behaving badly and we have provided 72 pages of evidence to support our view. Should we have said nothing and let him continue? And the logic is also haywire – it’s like saying that police who stop a suspected drunk driver are deterring everyone else from travelling by car.

In an era when news risks being obscured by propaganda, it is vital that sensitive issues be debated rather than suppressed.

Hear hear. And that includes issues relating to the conduct of journalists, though the Times here seems determined to suppress that debate. 

Above all, honest reporting needs defending.

Indeed it does. And one of the things it needs defending from is dishonest reporting, which brings the whole industry and the profession or craft of journalism into disrepute. So let’s have a debate about that.

We unhesitatingly defend it in the case of our own reporters, on whom our readers are entitled to rely.

Who says that Times readers can rely on Times reporters, apart from the Times? Why not, as our report proposes, put the question to an independent panel and see what they say?

#The Times, #Andrew Norfolk, #Unmasked, #journalism, #ethics, #Hacked Off, #Paddy French