Press: Judgment day for The Times’s fostering story

14 September 2018

THE most interesting story about press ethics this week crept out through the blog of Brian Cathcart, a former Independent colleague, who now campaigns for press regulation. Reading it, one rather sees why.

This was the full court judgment in the case of the Christian girl supposedly forced into Muslim foster-care by the borough of Tower Hamlets last year (News, 1 September, Press, 8 September, 10 November 2017). The story was splashed by The Times, and widely believed since it carried the byline of Andrew Norfolk, a reporter widely and rightly admired for breaking the Rotherham child sexual exploitation story.

The lead of the original Tower Hamlets story could not have been clearer: “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. The five-year-old girl, a native English speaker, has spent the past six months in the care of two Muslim households in London. The foster placements were made, against the wishes of the girl’s family. . .”.

Compare the account in the judgment (which is not disputed). “The child was born in the UK but had also spent a lot of time with her maternal grandparents in their country of origin. On the morning of 02.03.2017 the mother had been drinking with a male friend throughout the night since 01.03.2017 in the bar of a hotel whilst the child was in the mother’s care. . . The hotel staff called the police because they were concerned about the mother’s behaviour.” The police found them so drunk (the boyfriend could not even stand up) that they took the child into care at once.

“The incident on 02.03.2017 is the second time such an incident has been reported. On 24.09.2012 the Foreign Office received a referral from the duty manager of a hotel in Bulgaria expressing concerns about the mother’s wellbeing. The duty manager reported that he suspected that the mother may be on drugs or alcohol and that the hotel room was not particularly fit for a young child.”

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On top of that, she had two convictions for drunken driving, and tests on her hair indicated that she had been taking cocaine while she was in charge of the child.

In the eyes of The Times, however, and indeed the Mail, which repeated the original story, all of this was nothing compared to the undoubted fact that at no time in her drunken rampages was the mother seen to wear a niqab.

The court found no evidence for any of the lurid stories about her time in the foster parents’ houses; it did note, though, that she had to be removed from the last one with police protection because of the presence of journalists and photographers. She was taken back to the care of her maternal grandmother, who is a Muslim who prays at home and not in the mosque.

 

I CAN hardly bear to cover the Conservative reactions to the report on our broken economy produced by the Institute for Public Policy and Research Commission on Economic Justice and promoted by the Archbishop of Canterbury (News, 7 September). They take longer to read than they can have taken to write. The only novelty I could discover was in the Financial Times, which not only quoted the Archbishop in one of his characteristically quotable extravagances — “It’s more than a crisis of capitalism, it’s also a national crisis” — it added a small but essential detail. “Mr Welby”, it said, [was] “speaking over sandwiches and a banana at the Anglican Communion’s headquarters in west London”.

 

THIS week’s culture comes from The Times Literary Supplement, where the philosopher Simon Blackburn reviewed John Gray’s book on atheism (Books, 7 September; Features, 25 May). It is well worth reading the whole thing, but one line of reasoning is worth pulling out: “It is a virtue of Gray’s latest book that he defines atheism as simply a matter of having no use for any conception of God. To have no use for the idea means avoiding the word and the practices in which it occurs altogether. It is not to assert that some defined thing definitely does not exist.

“That there is nothing to say about the deity is the conclusion of Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Immanuel Kant, each of whom is in a way sympathetic to the pressure towards thinking that ‘there must be something more’, but each of whom counselled that we can make nothing further of that thought. . .

“None of these three great philosophers described themselves as atheists, and there is an intellectual as well as a prudential reason for that. It is natural to suppose that a theist believes something, an atheist disbelieves it, and an agnostic sits on the fence. But this presupposes that there is a definite question, with an answer yes, no, or don’t know. Whereas the philosophers are instead denying that there is a definite question that can be framed. They, too, have no use for theological language.”

I am not entirely certain that this is true, mind. Even if there is no single definite question that can even be framed, theological language still offers ways into some questions that nothing else does.

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