‘Muslim fostering’: Times journalism utterly discredited

It has taken more than six months, but the final judgment in what the Times portrayed as the Tower Hamlets ‘Muslim fostering’ case has finally been released in summary form and it is devastating for the newspaper and its chief investigative reporter, Andrew Norfolk.

It makes two things very clear.

– The Times’s primary source for its inflammatory story – the mother of the ‘white,  Christian child’ taken into care – was very far from being a reliable witness and no story should ever have been published based on her evidence.

– Far from being an ‘inappropriate’ placing, as the Times forcefully asserted, a Muslim foster home was probably the most familiar environment that could have been found for a child who had spent much of her short life with Muslim grandparents in a Muslim country.

Norfolk and his editor, John Witherow, should now resign. They have disgraced their paper and British journalism by recklessly publishing and defending a story that was not only grossly distorted and wholly unjustified by the facts, but one that was guaranteed to incite hatred against Muslims.

Further, the management of the Times and its independent directors should establish a fully independent external investigation into what may have been the most shocking failure of that paper’s journalism in a generation. A paper capable of publishing such a story, and of standing by it in defiance of the evidence, is a paper whose editorial standards have collapsed.

The story, published on 28 August last year under the headline ‘Christian child forced into Muslim foster care’, has already been discredited in its detail (see the Press Gang reporting here and here), but the new document reveals in shocking detail the scale of the distortions and omissions perpetrated by the Times. 

The mother

Its principal source – on whom it relied contrary to high-level expert advice given at the time – was the mother of the child. It is reasonable to assume that the chief investigative reporter of the Times would have researched the background of a source on whom he intended to place reliance for a front-page lead story of great sensitivity, so he must have known that:

– ‘the child was removed from the mother’s care under a police protection order following the mother’s arrest for being drunk in charge of a child in a bar in a hotel near the mother’s home’

– ‘In July 2017, the mother was convicted at a Magistrates’ Court of being drunk in charge of a child’. (This conviction stood at the time the Times published its story, though it was subsequently overturned.)

He chose not to share these facts with his readers, even in a form that would have protected the mother’s identity. Norfolk ought also to have known that the mother had previous convictions, as the judgment spells out:

– ‘In August 2013 the mother pleaded guilty to an earlier offence of battery against a security officer at a London casino after she had been drinking.’

– ‘The mother has pleaded guilty to the charge of driving a motor vehicle with excessive alcohol on 2 separate occasions’, in 2008 and 2009.

The court document expresses sympathy for the mother, who was clearly very troubled. But her difficulties underline the recklessness of Norfolk and the Times in basing a story on her evidence. Their front-page story said:

– ‘It is understood that the child told her mother’ about the bacon matter. (The carer was alleged to have refused to allow her to eat bacon.)

– ‘The girl is said to have told her mother’ that the carer said  European women were alcoholics.

– ‘The girl’s mother is said by friends’ to have been horrified by the foster placement.

– An unnamed ‘friend’ of the mother was also quoted describing and criticising the placement in dramatic and emotional terms.

The forms of words here suggest that the mother was an indirect source, but whether Norfolk met her or only talked to her ‘friends’ it was his responsibility to get a clear picture of her quality as a witness.

It should have been a bleak picture. The judgment makes clear that not only were the mother’s problems with alcohol ‘chronic’ but she was also a user of cocaine. ‘The mother tested positive for cocaethylene, a cocaine metabolite that was detected during the period from September 2016 to March 2017. The presence of the metabolite indicates the combined use of cocaine with alcohol.’

Further, there were problems of domestic violence involving the mother and her Russian partner: ‘If she and the putative father were together and the child were to be present there would be a real risk that the child may get caught up in the domestic violence and might be at risk of suffering physical and emotional harm which might be significant in its nature.’

Even if Norfolk and the Times had known only half of this (and that would raise serious doubts about their research), they should not have published as they did. And when, knowing however much they did, they decided to publish their story anyway, they had an absolute obligation to tell their readers what they knew about the mother without revealing her identity. That, at the very least, would have meant making clear that the child was taken away from her for her own (that is, the child’s) protection. This was not mentioned in the Times’s story.

An appropriate placement 

The judgment also leaves in shreds the Times’s assertion – the foundation of the entire story – that it had been wrong of Tower Hamlets to place this ‘white, Christian child’ with Muslim foster carers.

For large parts of her short life before she was taken into care she had lived with Muslim grandparents in a Muslim country, and it was to their care and to that country that, after due process of law, the court returned her in February. In other words, in the eyes of the family court as well as the local authority, the best place for this child to grow up is a Muslim place.

The various specific claims by the Times – that the Muslim foster carer took away the child’s cross, mocked her religion, didn’t speak English, told her that European women were stupid and refused to let her eat bacon, were all denied in detail months ago. Now, for the first time, we know that a Muslim environment was at least as familiar to the child as any other.

The judgement refers to ‘the period between April 2012 and December 2016, while the child was primarily cared for by the maternal grandmother’. That was four out of her five years of existence. And this was explicitly ‘with her maternal grandparents in their country of origin’.

It also states: ‘The maternal grandparents are Muslim… The maternal grandmother chose to take an oath on the Qur’an before giving oral evidence. The grandparents say that they do not attend Mosque but they do pray at home.’

If the chief investigative reporter of the Times was even half aware of this – and he should have been – then he had no grounds for attacking a local authority for placing the child with inappropriate carers. Not only the child, but also the mother (again, his chief source), were at home with Muslim family life – despite the mother’s claims to Christian heritage.

At the very least, the court judgement – issued in February – leaves no doubt that Norfolk and the Times have known since then about the child’s family circumstances. Yet they have not withdrawn their story, still less corrected it or apologised for it. 

‘Confidential reports’

Norfolk and the Times may now cling to one last sliver of a defence. Besides quoting the mother or her alleged friends as the source of his original story, he also cited ‘confidential local authority reports’ allegedly compiled by an unnamed ‘social services supervisor’.

This, they may argue, is evidence that even though they have got this story entirely wrong they carried out something resembling due diligence in their reporting by corroborating the mother’s case. This argument does not stand up.

These ‘reports’ were presented as the source for four elements of his original story, none of which had substance:

– that the child said her carers ‘don’t speak English’.  A conscientious reporter would have known or quickly established that no one can be approved to be a foster carer if they do not speak English.

– that the foster carer suggested the child learn Arabic. This was prominently presented as a cause for alarm. Why Norfolk and the Times considered it to be so was never explained.

– that the girl was distressed and did not want to return to the foster family. Sadly but predictably this is not unusual in cases of this kind.

– that she was unhappy that the foster carer had removed her crucifix necklace. Norfolk’s story implied that this was an act of religious intolerance and made no allowance for the possibility of an innocent explanation such as the one subsequently accepted by all parties except the mother.

In sum, the ‘confidential local authority reports’, as relied upon in the article, provided nothing fit for publication.

The summary of the final judgement of the court, on the other hand, delivers definitive proof of the Times’s disgraceful conduct. It is not, moreover, a partisan document but was approved by the judge (HHJ Sapnara) and by Tower Hamlets local authority and was provided to solicitors for each party party involved – including the mother – none of whom requested any amendments.