THE 10 SLY EVASIONS OF ANDREW NORFOLK
In a BBC Radio 4 programme, The Corrections (listen here), the chief investigative reporter of the London Times has broken a two-year silence about his grossly inaccurate reporting of the ‘Christian child forced into Muslim foster care’.
The 2017 story (£), you may remember, painted a shocking picture of a five-year-old girl placed at the mercy of bullying, bigoted, niqab-wearing carers, but it has since been proved wrong in almost every detail (as the programme made clear, and see also UNMASKED). Yet the Times has refused to correct a word of it.
The headline fact about Norfolk’s 20-minute interview is that he admitted nothing and apologised for nothing. The only potentially creditworthy thing about his performance, in fact, was that he seemed so uncomfortable delivering it.
So how did he defend himself? Again and again in response to searching questions he resorted to evasions and distractions. Here are 10 examples.
1. Until now he’s been unable to respond to his critics.
He was glad to have the chance to speak, he claimed. He had remained silent for two years and in this ‘void’, as he called it, ‘a narrative has developed which in many ways I believe to be greatly misleading’. That 'void' was of his own making. The truth, as explained in the programme, is that he was reluctant to give this interview and only agreed at the last moment. What's more, over the past two years he has turned down several other invitations to put his side of the story – two of them from me. And remember, he writes for a national newspaper: he has a platform to say what he wants six days a week. He's been hiding from his critics.
2: He wasn’t happy with the headline.
The programme narrator stated that it was ‘clear’ Norfolk was ‘unhappy’ with the headline the Times placed on his first report in this case. We heard him say: ‘I don’t write the headlines that appear on stories. Headlines can be reductive.’ The headline was this: ‘Christian girl forced into Muslim foster care’. Compare that with Norfolk’s opening paragraph: ‘A white Christian child was taken from her family and forced to live with a niqab-wearing foster carer in a home where she was allegedly encouraged to learn Arabic.’ Norfolk can't blame the headline writer. The problem here is what he wrote himself.
3: He didn’t really rely on the evidence of the untrustworthy mother.
Key questions in this affair concern the mother of the child taken into care. Why did Norfolk rely on her as a source when he knew she was untrustworthy? Why did he not tell his readers she had drink problems and criminal convictions and had posed a danger to her child? Why did he ignore experts who told him to treat her evidence with great caution? Norfolk had no answers to these questions but instead sought to give the impression he hadn't really relied on the mother because he had an alternative source for his allegations.
In fact he gave significant prominence to what the mother said. ‘It is understood that the girl told her mother…’ introduced paragraph five of his first report, and ‘the girl is said to have told her mother…’ appears in paragraph six. A little further down, the words ‘the girl’s mother is said by friends…’ begins three substantial paragraphs of emotive quotation. Norfolk was ethically obliged to make clear to his readers that the woman he was quoting so fully was an unreliable witness. He didn’t.
4: There was corroborative evidence for the allegations.
Norfolk stressed in the interview the significance of reports he had acquired that were written by a social worker who supervised contact meetings between mother and child. These ‘tipped the balance in favour of publication’, he declared, because ‘to a substantial degree they supported the allegations that were being made by the family’. They didn’t.
In his first article Norfolk published four allegations he said were made in these reports, but we know that before publication two experts had told him it would be unsafe to rely on three of these. The reports said the child was distressed at the end of contact sessions; the experts explained that sadly this was normal. The reports said the child claimed her foster carer didn’t speak English; the experts explained that this was impossible. The reports said the child claimed her crucifix necklace was removed; one expert told him the explanation was probably innocent. In each case Norfolk ignored the advice and published the allegation, attributing it to the contact supervisor, and in each case the allegation was wrong.* The one allegation attributed to the reports that remains unchallenged is a claim that the child said she had been encouraged to learn Arabic. Norfolk has yet to explain why he found this sinister.
5: The allegations he reported were not inconceivable.
Twice in his interview Norfolk had recourse to this defence. ‘Was it so inconceivable,’ he asked, ‘that in one local authority one fostering placement may have gone wrong?’ And in connection with the allegation that the child was denied a carbonara meal for religious reasons he said: ‘It did not seem inconceivable that this could have happened.’ This is a ludicrous distortion of what journalism is about. The job of a reporter is to report what he or she believes to be accurate and true, not what may be ‘conceivable’ or what 'could have happened'.
6: Muslims? Really?
When it was put to Norfolk that he knew before publication that the grandmother of the child at the heart of his story was Muslim, he replied: ‘I knew that the ethnicity and religion of the grandparents was a matter of dispute between the parties.’ This doesn't get him off the hook; it damns him. The whole point of his story was that this was a Christian child placed in an alien, Muslim environment; if there was the faintest possibility that the child had Muslim heritage he had an obligation to tell his readers.
7: OK then, they’re Muslims, but not serious ones.
He went on to say: ‘... and the local authority did indeed say they were non-practising Muslims’. Whether the grandparents were practising or not (and it turned out they were) makes no difference. As soon as Norfolk had any grounds to suspect the supposedly Christian child had Muslim heritage he should have made this clear in his reports.
8: His version may be different from the correct one but it’s still true.
Asked to compare a summary of his account of events with a summary based on the facts as now known, Norfolk acknowledged the two were different. But when the interviewer pointed out that the second summary was true, Norfolk replied defiantly: ‘As is the first.’ This is Trump logic. He wants us to believe that two truths can coexist here, even though one is founded solidly on the evidence of court documents and the other, which he published, is totally discredited by those same documents.
9: His story was just about a few individuals, so why all the fuss?
Norfolk said: ‘There is part of me that still doesn’t quite understand why, when an article is published about, for example, a social worker who … makes some terrible blunder in a case like Baby P, it is not seen as an attack on all social workers. When a soldier does something terrible it is not seen as an … attempt to demonise all members of the British army. And yet, to suggest that it was being alleged by a social worker in reports that A, B, C and D had happened in this case was somehow to demonise an entire community.’ This is extraordinarily disingenuous. Does he really think social workers were not demonised in the (largely false) tabloid reporting of the Baby P case? Does he really think the army was not tainted by the abuse scandals in Iraq? And even by his own account in this interview it's clear he actually intended his reports in the ‘Muslim fostering’ case to be an attack on, or an exposé of, conservative Muslims in general, as well as an attack on Tower Hamlets local authority.
10: He's sorry (but not really).
At several points in the interview Norfolk appeared to express regret, but on each occasion he took care to add words that robbed this of meaning. For example: ’There was clearly deep unhappiness caused by the article we published, and do I regret that people were upset by it? Of course I do.’ So he regrets that 'people were upset’ but not his own actions. Again: ‘Do I think as the story developed, that in some cases we may have pushed to the fore certain aspects of that story that with hindsight we would not do again? Yes I do.’ He’s not sorry for publishing those ‘aspects’ of the story, only for the prominence they were given. And he is careful to say 'we may have pushed to the fore' and not 'I may have pushed to the fore' – as if he was not really responsible.
More to come
Those are 10 significant evasions and distractions deployed by Andrew Norfolk. Significantly he was unable to disprove even one of the many criticisms of his work that the BBC team put to him. In other words, their criticisms – which closely match those put forward in UNMASKED – remain unchallenged.
Meanwhile, among all his ducking and weaving Norfolk made some significant revelations about what drove him to write an article that is now exposed as a disgrace to journalism. A separate examination of that will follow here before long.
* See UNMASKED: Andrew Norfolk, the Times newspaper and anti-Muslim reporting for full details, here.