The Muslim foster care case first reported in The Times has prompted harsh criticism of the choices made by journalists when investigating complaints about poor social work practice. I make no comment on the writing, front page positioning, headline or the intentions behind the initial article in The Times. But the problems raised by what the media cannot report when investigating issues that may have gone wrong for children in care are perfectly illustrated by the toxic fallout from this story. A highly respected journalist and a national newspaper have had their reputations shredded, and are unable to fully defend themselves.

A Guardian leader column in the days following stated that the first thing a rookie journalist learns is to get all sides of the story. This is absolutely true: reporting only some of the facts can be misleading. We need to strive our hardest to be fair and balanced as well as accurate in all our reporting.

But the lack of transparency in family law cases means we are now in a situation where abuses of some of the most intrusive powers the state has – to remove children from their families, sometimes forever – are illegal to report, even in the public interest, even if you do have the facts. And at that point, being fair and balanced, as well as accurate, becomes very hard indeed.

Family cases are heard in private in order to protect the children involved. In most cases, journalists are allowed into family courts, though unlike in criminal courts, we are not allowed to give the public a detailed account of the evidence given, or anything else that goes on in front of the judge. We can gather the facts that emerge in court, but we can’t report them.

In trying to dig deeper however, we’re stymied. Journalists can’t balance allegations of poor social work practice with the stated views of the local authority involved when there is a reflexive refusal to give any information at all – unless it is dragged, kicking and screaming in the glare of publicity – from the children’s services department involved.

I’d argue that a strict adherence to the “no comment” position is unhelpful in terms of enabling the public to understand social work practice – and nor is it always necessary. For a start, it is possible to give a journalist you trust an off the record, non-reportable briefing. But in some cases carefully considered information could be placed in the public domain without it having any realistic possibility of identifying the child concerned.

It’s worth observing that “no comment” from a government body is generally not seen as fatal to reporting on an important issue of public interest – plenty of journalism runs with the inclusion of the line “x declined our invitation for interview” without it prompting accusations of bias or lack of balance. But in care cases, the refusal of the authorities to engage creates extra difficulties, not only for the reader but for the journalist, too.

In an inevitably complex care case that often involves parents who are desperate, angry and scared, having no access to alternative perspectives on the situation means there’s little chance for a reporter to extend their own understanding of what has gone on, or come to a judgement as to what weight to give the accounts put forward by the various people and agencies involved.

It’s important to state that no responsible journalist or media outlet wants to identify and possibly harm an already vulnerable child. The loss of trust in public interest journalism if anyone did so would be immense, and rightly so.

But now we come to the ethical dilemma – what do we do? Never investigate or report on care cases? I fear that they are already mostly put in the “too hard, too risky, too expensive” box. I know that’s where I often put them. People email me all the time about awful things they say have happened to their children when social services have got involved.  But I know that precisely because I’m concerned that reporting restrictions mean I won’t be able to get enough of the picture, I’ve not followed up on stories that I sensed could have been important.

So in the wake of the Muslim foster care case reporting, there’s a serious question for journalists who believe it’s important to scrutinise government when it intervenes in family life. Do we attempt to investigate the actions of state agents who sometimes deal with families very badly, even unlawfully, while accepting that we cannot give readers as complete a picture we would like? If we do, we risk being professionally crucified for being partial and inaccurate.

Do we say that because it is impossible to balance our reporting, we won’t follow up on stories that seem plausible, and so don’t hold the state to account?

Or do we work with the thoughtful people in social services, the courts and family rights organisations to find a way of responsibly reporting what really goes on in society’s name in the family courts? It will be difficult, but with creativity, goodwill and commitment to ensure that children stay safe, I think we can get to a place where there is more transparency, rather than less.

A shorter version of this piece was published in the National Union of Journalists magazine The Journalist.

Louise Tickle is a member of The Transparency Project group and a freelance journalist. Other posts by The Transparency Project team on this case can be found here.

Feature Pic is of the author.