We’ve written about the so-called “muslim foster care case” already (here and here). We’ve been somewhat critical of the coverage by The Times. But we are a little concerned that some of the criticism we have seen of media reports, particularly but not exclusively of The Times’ coverage, are themselves not entirely rooted in demonstrable fact – that is to say, in the rush to condemn The Times for sloppy reporting, some of the critics have themselves got a little confused or sloppy. It’s important that criticism – particularly strongly worded criticism which calls for the sacking of journalists and editors – is itself accurate.

So this post is about some of the confusion and error which has crept into the discussion of this case – not introduced by The Times, but by others. Some of the rebuttals of The Times coverage are expressed in over-certain terms, apparently based on mis- or over-interpretation of the published order. Here we analyse what the publicly available evidence does and does not support, and where things remain unclear. In between black “lies” and white “truth” there remain some “don’t knows” and some “maybes” which need to be acknowledged.

Unfortunately, where things are not black and white it is harder to be as punchy as much of the coverage which sees this case as “obvious” – so this post is long. Bear with us. The devil is in the detail.

The order

We looked at the order in an earlier post. It has been referred to repeatedly as a “ruling” as if it were equivalent to a judgment. It isn’t. A judgment is a statement of the evidence heard, the facts found and the conclusions based on the application of the law to those facts.

The judge did approve the agreed plan for the child to move to her grandmothers home, which amounts to a “ruling”. Here, where the move was agreed there may have been no full reasoned judgment beyond the judge orally confirming that the move was in the best interests of the child in accordance with the Children Act 1989 (as summarised at paragraph 17 of the recitals). And as no evidence was heard no facts will have been found proved (apart from this line “The court was, on 10 March 2017, satisfied that interim threshold has been crossed” which tells us that the court considered that on 10 March there were reasonable grounds to believe that the child had suffered or was likely to suffer significant harm at the point when the police removed her from her mother’s care on an emergency basis, enabling an interim care order to be made (section 38 Children Act 1989). Critically this is not proving a fact, it is simply saying that there was enough evidence to be worried, but the fact that it is only the interim threshold that is recorded as being crossed indicates that the question of whether those facts can ultimately be proved to the civil standard remains a live issue that may later be have to be determined through a trial. This is confirmed by the recording that one issue is “What significant harm has the child suffered or been at risk of suffering?”).

But what about all those useful nuggets of information contained in the court order? Here it’s important to know how to interpret a court order, particularly a CMO (Case Management Order) which adopts a particular template format. Not all of the “order” is the order proper. Much of it is “recitals” or “preambles” – essentially recordings of things which happened or were said at the hearing, or which have happened earlier in the case, or of the parties position or assertions. So the wording matters. We’ll look at these alongside a blog by Tom Pride which has achieved a considerable amount of social media reach, having been picked up by those associated with the Hacked Off campaign and retweeted with approval by Hugh Grant : How the press lied about the little girl staying with Muslim foster parents. Here are the facts. We aren’t going to take every possible point, just those which illustrate the problem.

As can be seen from the title, the article doesn’t just accuse the press of inaccuracy or sloppiness, it directly alleges dishonesty and calls in terms for the sacking of a number of prominent journalists and editors including Andrew Norfolk the journalist who broke the story. It is based largely upon the CMO and begins “Here are 10 of their worst lies – along with the real facts of the case as we know them”. There is no room for ambiguity in this blog post.

They go on to say that :

According to court documents, the child herself is from Muslim heritage and her Muslim grandmother has now been cleared by the courts to look after her. This fact is only disputed by the girl’s mother but none of this was mentioned by the tabloids as it would obviously totally destroy their narrative

This is a reference to preamble 16 in the CMO (which is set out in full in the post) :

16. Documents including the assessment of the maternal grandparents state that they are of a Muslim background but are non practising. The child’s mother says they are of Christian heritage.

But all this tells us is that there is a conflict of evidence which is unresolved. We have no way of knowing whether the mother’s or the grandmother’s account is accurate. Clearly there is some history of conflict between these two women and either one could be the unreliable one (or perhaps there is some innocent explanation that is not apparent to us from the one line exposition of apparently irreconcilable positions). The court order does not state that the grandmother is muslim, it states that the SGO assessment has her of a muslim background but that the mother says something else – one of them is wrong, but we don’t know which.

Next up, what about speaking English? Tompride says :

Tower Hamlets council have confirmed that the temporary foster parents do speak English. According to court documents, the Family Court dealing with the case has also expressed no concerns about the foster parents’ level of English. The press simply lied about that

This is a reference to a quote in The Guardian based upon the initial short version of the Tower Hamlets press release which predated the child’s move to her grandmother, and therefore refers to the placement in the present tense. The longer updated version, post move to grandmother, refers to the foster carers in the past tense and can be found on the Tower Hamlets site here. The Wayback Machine enables us to see the earlier version here.

The author of this blog post seems not to have picked up [does not refer here to the fact that*] that there were two foster placements [although it is referred to elsewhere in the post*]. One from March until about late June, and a second respite placement that subsisted for the full two months up until the move to grandmother on 29 August. As Andrew Norfolk makes clear in his Asian Network interview here, it was only the first placement that had been complained of. Our (not verbatim) note of what Andrew Norfolk says on this point in the interview is :

…she had two foster placements in care, four months with one family and two months with the second. The reports and what was said about her being desperately upset and not wanting to return because she didn’t understand the language, they don’t speak English they want me to learn Arabic – were entirely based on her exp during the first four months and it is not the case and we’ve never suggested the foster carer she’s been with the past two months doesn’t speak English. Both foster mothers primary carers speak english and wouldn’t be approved as foster carers if they didn’t speak English. [this last comment is contrary to the initial Times coverage which asserted the foster carer didn’t speak English, or at any rate that this is what was reported by the child]

So, Tower Hamlets’ description is of the then current second placement. It doesn’t address the criticisms of the previous placement, but the order tells us these criticisms are not accepted :

8. The mother raised some concerns about the appropriateness of the placement. On 27th June 2017, the court directed the Local Authority to produce a statement to address the cultural appropriateness of the foster care placement.

9. That statement was filed. The allegations made against the foster carers are disputed by the local authority

11. The mother has today confirmed further concerns in respect of the foster carers. The Court today directed a further statement from the local authority to address those concerns.

It is misleading of Tom Pride to say that :

According to council foster care officials, the temporary foster parents did not ban Easter as stated by the tabloids. There is also no mention of this according to court documents by either the mother herself or the lawyers representing her. The press simply lied about that.

and that :

There is no evidence, apart from claims by the tabloid press, that the temporary foster parents have banned crucifixes and bacon from the home. There is also no mention of this according to court documents by either the mother herself or the lawyers representing her. The press simply lied.

Firstly, although we are not told what the nature of the concerns raised by the mother are it is clear from the order that they have been raised. They might or might not match with those reported in the press about bacon and crucifixes. Secondly, whatever those concerns were there is a dispute about them that the court has not yet sorted out. No conclusion has been reached about the validity of those allegations – the court hasn’t even received all the evidence (Elsewhere it is reported that the judge did not have the contact recordings which are apparently the source of much of the concern). It might be that the case reaches a point where the exercise of working out which of them is true is unnecessary, but that is another story.

The court order does not support a proposition that the press lied. It supports the proposition that the allegations the press have reported have not yet been substantiated.

The blogger also says that

There is also no mention of the [bacon and crucifixes allegation] according to court documents by either the mother herself or the lawyers representing her. The press simply lied about that.

The author of the blog seems to assume that the source of the allegations is the mother, and extrapolates that the absence of any spelt out detail of the mothers’ allegations means that they have been made up by the press. However the order says that :

The mother has confirmed that she did not disclose documents, confidential to these proceedings, to the press.

This is a record of the mother’s stated position. It is not confirmation or proof that she didn’t disclose documents confidential to the proceedings to the press (the journalist responsible for The Times reports confirmed in an interview with BBC Asian Network that he was not at liberty to reveal his journalistic sources but that The Times had largely relied upon contact recordings written by contact supervisors. How The Times accessed those recordings is a moot point, but it is at least arguable that those documents were not “confidential to the proceedings” unless and until filed with the court, which apparently they hadn’t been (it could have been the mother or as some have speculated a whistleblower within the local authority, or some other person – but we are unlikely to ever find out). So it’s difficult to know what to make of this recording in isolation. It doesn’t really help us with the question of the source of the allegations. And the suggestion that the order supports the proposition that the press have simply made up the bacon / crucifixes allegation is proved by a mere absence of their mention is unsustainable. It is important here to recognise that the allegations were always only allegations that the child had reported the taking away of bacon and crucifixes, which is not quite the same as an allegation that these items were in fact taken. Children say things for all sorts of reasons which are untrue or inaccurate. It is possible that The Times have faithfully reported what the child has been recorded by social services staff as having said, but the question of whether the child’s account was accurate or not is a distinct one.

Similarly, criticism that :

The foster parents have been rated very highly by independent assessors, including the child’s own independent Children’s Guardian whose job is to advocate solely for the welfare of the child

based on this paragraph of the recitals to the order :

10. The child’s Guardian has undertaken enquiries and visited the child in the current foster carer’s home and spoken to the child alone. The Guardian has no concerns as to the child’s welfare and she reports that the child is settled and well cared for by the foster carer

is misplaced. This requires careful reading. The Guardian has visited the child in the CURRENT foster home. This does not assist with the question of whether the child was settled or unsettled (as apparently recorded by a contact supervisor) in the first foster placement.

The writer of this blog post has simply conflated the evidence concerning the two foster placements, and so some of the trenchant criticism of The Times is misplaced or overstated.

Others have, in reliance on this blog post gone on to say that “The entire story, from headline to closing to paragraph, was a series of lies and lies by omission.” (see here).

We don’t want to be overly critical – these are easy and understandable mistakes to make if you are not familiar with CMOs. And to illustrate the point, it isn’t just this blogger who has got this wrong. The BBC make many of the same mistakes here (“ruling”, conflation of two placements etc) and it has to be said that the Tower Hamlets statements entirely fails to make clear to anyone other than the most eagle eyed lawyer types that they are not talking about the foster placement Andrew Norfolk is writing about at all.

In a similar vein BASW (British Association of Social Workers) has made an “official complaint over false and inflammatory articles on ‘Christian child-Muslim foster family’”. Having set out the background as initially reported BASW complain that :

However, we now know from further developments and a court order published two days ago that the child was, in fact, fostered by an English-speaking family of mixed race. 

Also, the child’s guardian, having visited the child in the foster carer’s home and spoken to the child alone, had “no concerns as to the child’s welfare and reported that the child is “settled and well cared for by the foster carer”.

Not only does BASW condemn the inaccuracies and irresponsible reporting by these publications, but also feels it was wholly misleading that there was no reference to the robust assessment of social workers or approval processes for foster carers.

They too have fallen into the trap of not distinguishing between the two placements and are asserting inaccuracy which may or may not be borne out. The rest of the press release (we don’t have the actual complaint) is an attempt to inject some editorial control over the output of the press in order to educate the public about the good work of the social work profession and foster carers :

…Responsible reporting would have ensured the public was aware that matching of placements is complex and successful foster care is frequently provided by wonderful foster carers who may seem to be of different background to a child.”

“Children’s feelings are central to ensuring good foster care, this in undeniable, but there was no attempt to understand and portray how the local authority and foster carers were dealing with the child’s best interests in this case.

These questions about balance and the presentation of the bigger picture in respect of foster care processes are legitimate grievances, but we question whether they are likely to found the basis for a successful complaint to IPSO and struggle to see how they would easily map onto the IPSO editors’ code.

We have seen one further complaint to IPSO which is squarely based on Clause 1 of the code (Inaccuracy). We are sure there are others we have not seen, but anticipate that many complaints will relate to potential discrimination (although complainants would have to show they were directly affected by such discrimination). We have been asked whether we intend to submit a complaint ourselves. We do not. Firstly because it seems to us that such complaints regarding inaccuracy as can properly be made at this time have been made by others. More importantly, as this blog post hopefully illustrates we consider that there is so much that remains unclear at the moment that it would be premature and a poor use of our limited resources to complain at this stage. Further, it seems to us that it cannot presently be said that the reports that the child has said x or y are inaccurate, even though the child’s account may itself be inaccurate. We prefer only to make a complaint of inaccuracy when we are sure of our own footing. Here we are not.

We will reconsider the position when – and if – further information comes into the public domain.

This stuff really matters. We are happy to criticise poor reporting, and we have been critical of this reporting. But it is not helpful in making such criticism to make the same mistakes that are complained of. Be fair. Be accurate.

*starred corrections in [square brackets] inserted 3.50pm 6 Sept – Tom Pride has flagged via twitter that he was indeed aware that there were two foster placements and that he refers to that fact in his post.

Feature pic : Scales by Hittie Evie on Flickr (Creative Commons) – thanks!