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Press finds cesspit irresistible

13 June 2014

TWO things this week to illustrate how little facts count against the power of story. The first and most egregious is the claim that 800 babies' corpses had been disposed of in a septic tank behind a home for fallen women run by nuns in Ireland.

This originated in The Irish Daily Mail, but was picked up and repeated as fact by The Washington Post: "Bodies of 800 babies, long-dead, found in septic tank at former Irish home for unwed mothers" was its headline, under a story bylined Terrence McCoy, which got "ancient ruins" and "green landscapes" into the first sentence. That in itself should surely have been a warning of clichés to come.

And what could be more clichéd than heartless nuns tipping little corpses into the cesspit? (An Irish colleague, recounting the story, added the detail that it had happened at night - because, as we both intuitively saw, that's what the story demanded.)

Sure enough, the Washington Post story continued, "what happened to nearly 800 of those abandoned children has now emerged: their bodies were piled into a massive septic tank sitting in the back of the structure and forgotten, with neither gravestones nor coffins."

The Independent, never knowingly undersold, described the discovery as a "silent holocaust"; a comment piece in The Irish Independent by Emer O'Kelly claimed as a matter of fact that "a pit has been found filled with the skeletons of tiny babies and small children, 800 of them, dumped in the pit which some prefer to call a 'mass grave' but is actually a septic tank" and demanded "vengeance" on "the perpetrators who dug that hole and consigned pale, cold, tiny corpses to it".

The same "facts", with less hysteria, were asserted by Emer O'Toole in The Guardian, Ruth Gledhill writing for the Religious News Service, the BBC, Al Jazeera, ABC news in Australia . . . almost everyone except the Associated Press and, oddly, The Irish Times, which would usually be all over a story so much to the discredit of the Roman Catholic Church. But, since this one had been broken by its deadly rival The Irish Daily Mail, The Irish Times was spurred into doing proper journalism to knock it down. This is a heartening demonstration of the constructive part that spite and jealousy play in journalism (as they also do in scientific discovery).

From the Irish Times story it emerged that Catherine Corless, the local historian who discovered the deaths and published their existence in 2012, had never used the word "dumped", and that she thought most of the bodies had been buried in a communal plot where there was also a septic tank marked on earlier maps. This was not "massive" as The Washington Post reported: The Irish Times talked to one of the boys who had found it, who said it was about the size of his coffee table and had at most 20 skeletons in it.

What's more, the Home was put on mains water in 1937, and the vast majority of the deaths occurred after that, when there was no cesspit to place the bodies in. But all this is extrapolation from documents and memories, since nothing has been excavated at all. No bodies whatsoever have actually been found. We do know that the children died, most, perhaps, as a result of malign neglect on the part of the nuns, and we know that the Washington Post version of the story has to be false. But that is the one that went flying around the world. That is the one that will be remembered.

IT WILL be interesting to see whether the Birmingham "Trojan horse" story will be remembered as being about "faith schools". The secularist lobby has done its best (and the Church of England press office put out an excellent early rejoinder) to suggest that the problem here was "faith schools", when actually every single one of the schools involved is completely part of the state system. Some are academies, and these, too, are working as designed, in as much as activist parents are pushing teachers about.

Academies were invented for fear that the schools were being run for the benefit of teachers and not children. Parent-power was meant to solve that problem. It is a central plank of the secularist narrative that religion is imposed on parents by schools, but here we have (a different) religion imposed on schools by parents. That's too confusing; so they repeat the old line, just more loudly.

It is clear that what was found was not violent extremism. But these places did have a more or less explicit Muslim identity and ethos. "Muslim" need not mean "extremist"; "extremist" need not mean "violent". But, as the baby-cesspit story shows, once a religion is understood as evil, people will believe anything at all about it.

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