‘Family Law’ publishes a regular blog series by The Transparency Project. This post originally appeared in June 2017 at [2017] Fam Law 694 and is reproduced here with kind permission of the publishers.

As well as writing up and commenting on specific cases, we have been regularly challenging inaccurate reporting through informal approaches to individual journalists, complaints to individual newspapers and, where appropriate, complaints to IPSO. It is no part of The Transparency Project’s role to seek to curtail the expression by any individual journalist of their honestly held opinion about the family courts, but we do think that criticism of the family justice system should be based upon a proper explanation of the legal and factual position, in order that the public should not be misled in forming their own views (whatever they may be).

That is to say, we defend the public interest in understanding the family courts for better or for worse, rather than acting as apologists for the courts. To that end, we have so far made two complaints to IPSO regarding what we see as material legal and factual inaccuracies in press reports. Each of those (so far) relates to material published in the Telegraph, including one column written by Christopher Booker. Mr Booker is a well-known critic of the family courts and child protection system, and has previously been the subject of judicial and other criticism for inaccurate reporting of individual cases (see for example HHJ Bellamy in Re L (A Child: Media Reporting) [2011] EWHC B8 (Fam) (18 April 2011) and Cobb J / The President in Re G (Adult) [2014] EWCOP 1361, [2014] COPLR 416 (01 May 2014) and various commentators concerning coverage of the ‘Italian C-section’ case : Re P (Enforced Caesarean: Reporting Restrictions) [2013] EWHC 4048 (Fam), [2014] 2 FLR 410 (17 December 2013)).

We wrote and complained about Mr Booker’s 11 March column, ‘In Britain’s secretive family courts, the lawyers always win’ because it mispresented, in our view, the legal position regarding the payment of lawyers and the statutory charge in Human Rights Act claims within family proceedings. The Telegraph rejected our complaint, as did IPSO, and the IPSO Executive Committee have declined to reconsider.

At the time of writing a further complaint to the Telegraph regarding Mr Booker’s 22 April column ‘A judge who will be sorely missed’ has just been rejected. The piece contained a number of factual inaccuracies regarding the proceedings arising out of the Court of Protection and involving the imprisonment of Mrs Kirk, the sister of the incapacitated (now deceased) Manuel Martins (see Barbara Rich, ‘Christopher Booker’s St George’s Day Myth’, 23 April). The Transparency Project, largely via Barbara Rich, has written on numerous occasions about this case and the inaccurate reporting of it. We intend to escalate to IPSO.

Although the number of complaints we have made has been small, our emerging impression to date has been that Section 1 of the IPSO Editors’ Code is interpreted literally by looking at each individual sentence in isolation, and that those who are policing the code are unwilling to consider the overall meaning or implication of the words read in context, including in the context of the chosen headline. We are monitoring to see if this is a pattern of concern.

We have by, contrast, found some publications and journalists responsive to constructive suggestions or requests for alterations, so all is not doom and gloom. For example, our complaints to three newspapers over their reporting of a case using headlines that suggested co-sleeping was a primary causal factor in the removal of children, with body text that minimised the other broader concerns resulted in some positive
corrections by both the Independent and Daily Mail, whilst the Telegraph rejected our complaint out of hand, as did IPSO. And we have previously secured corrections from the Guardian, and the insertion of URL links to the relevant judgment on BAILII in several pieces, including in respect of one of Mr Booker’s Telegraph columns. Where we have been unable to secure a link in the body of the article, we have used the comments facility to make one available to readers, providing that comments are open.

We will continue to pursue inaccuracies where we are able, although our resources are limited so we have to prioritise. We would encourage Family Law readers to approach newspapers directly where they identify inaccuracies, and to contact us with the outcome (reportingwatch@transparencyproject.org.uk) or flag issues where spotted, so that we can consider taking action ourselves. And you can assist us in reaching a wider audience through our guerrilla commenting strategy – add links to judgments or to our blog posts in comments sections of publications wherever you spot an opportunity, and share our posts on Facebook to your non-lawyer friends and family members.

Lucy Reed
Chair, The Transparency Project