The Tower Hamlets fostering case: should we trust the news or trust a judge?

Published: 7th Sep 2017

‘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 Times reported on 28 August.

‘But as the week unfolded,’ reported the Guardian on 1 September, ‘it became clear that the initial portrayal of the case was one-sided, if not inaccurate’.

Not so, replied The Times in an editorial the following day. It accused the Guardian of seizing on a court order issued after The Times had published its initial reports and then claiming that the order contradicted the facts on which those reports were based. The court order ‘does nothing of the sort’, said The Times.

The Times’s Chief Investigative Reporter Andrew Norfolk, who first reported the case, is well known for his reports on sexual abuse of white girls by men from Muslim communities in Rotherham and Rochdale.

In an interview with the BBC Today programme about the most recent case, Sir Martin Narey said that Mr Norfolk had done ‘brilliant work’ in Rotherham, although he criticised the reporter’s coverage of the Tower Hamlets case. Sir Martin was one of two people appointed by the government this year to conduct a ‘national fostering stocktake’.

What are the facts?

The reports published by The Times were very detailed. They said, for example, that: the child was taken away from her family against their wishes; that she was ‘sobbing and begging’ not to be returned to her foster home; that the foster family didn’t speak English; that the child was encouraged to learn Arabic; that her necklace was taken away because it had a Christian cross on it; and that she was not allowed to eat her favourite Italian dish, carbonara, because it contained bacon.   

Establishing the facts behind stories like these, especially ones containing so much detail, is exactly what this factchecking organisation was set up for. Unfortunately, we can’t always achieve that.

We have two primary sources of information: reports in The Times and a case management order issued by Judge Sapnara at the East London Family Court on 30 August.

Both are incomplete — deliberately so, in order to reduce the risk of identifying the five-year-old girl. That would be unlawful.

The court has also reminded journalists that there is a risk of ‘jigsaw’ identification, which can happen when different publishers publish different pieces of information. Though each may be innocuous, putting them together can identify a child.

We know that Mr Norfolk has spoken to “friends” of the child’s mother. He says he has also seen confidential reports made by social workers at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. And he was allowed to attend the court hearing on 29 August.

Other news organisations may have their own information. But no journalist would willingly identify a confidential source. For all these reasons, there are limits to what can be checked.

It’s also worth remembering that sources do not always tell the truth. Sometimes, they are mistaken. Sometimes, they try to deceive journalists for their own ends.

All reputable journalists try to check the information they are given. If that proves impossible and it turns out that the source has not told a reporter the truth, the report should be corrected. But it would not follow that the reporter had deliberately lied.

Surely we can believe the judge?

Judge Sapnara has done her best to establish the facts. But witnesses may misinform a court or give an incomplete account of the facts.

The judge deliberately omitted identifying information from the anonymised version of her case management order and we are not allowed to ask her to explain. With only a partial account available, there is always the risk of misunderstanding.

So neither the Times’ reports nor the court order can be relied upon as a complete source.

Even the most basic facts are disputed

There are a number of inconsistencies between initial press reports and the judge’s order. We have room to examine only one.

According to the judge, ‘documents including an assessment of the child’s maternal grandparents state that they are of a Muslim background but non-practising’. But, Judge Sapnara added, ‘the child’s mother says they are of Christian heritage’.

That assessment would have been made by Tower Hamlets social services department. So this sounds like a disagreement between social workers and the child’s mother.

In its initial report, based presumably on family sources, The Times described the girl as a ‘white Christian child’.

Criticising that reporting in an editorial on 31 August, the Guardian said the child’s mother was ‘herself the child of Muslim immigrants’.

No, said The Times, ‘for the record she is not’.

We can decide for ourselves which account we prefer. The Times appears to be relying on its own sources while the Guardian’s account may have been based on a partial reading of the court order.

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Anyone interested in this case can follow the links in this piece and read the original reports together with the court order.

Behind this story lie not only newspaper rivalries but profound disagreements about what’s best for a five-year old child who needed emergency protection.

But anyone who claims to be telling you the full truth of what happened is almost certainly wrong.


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