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The fostering case shows the British press has a problem with reporting fairly on Muslims

It's part of a bigger pattern of bias.

Did the Fourth Estate speak truth to power when The Times this week published salacious headlines about fostering in east London? You might assume they did with the flurry of follow-up articles and MPs falling over themselves to react. But you would unfortunately be wrong.

The story actually concerns one young child taken by social services from her mother who was understood to suffer from alcoholism and a possible cocaine addiction, and placed temporarily in foster care. The hysteria surrounding the case appears to have been created because the young girl was Christian and the foster parents were Muslim. “Christian child forced into Muslim foster care” screamed The Times in its first front page; “MPs’ anger as Christian girl forced into Muslim foster care” followed the Daily Mail’s front page the next day.

The Times stands by what it has done, with its Executive Editor stating he still believes it has reported “without fear or favour” despite court documents blowing holes in the narrative. Trevor Phillips appeared to be equally oblivious to reality as he wrote a piece in The Sun titled “The decision to put a five-year-old Christian girl into Muslim foster care is like child abuse and the council must pay” and even used the phrase “pro-Muslim reputation” when referring to the local Council.

These grossly misleading headlines and narratives have fed the far right, with The Times article shared by infamous right-wing extremists such as the English Defence League, Britain First and Tommy Robinson.

What we have witnessed in the last few days is not journalism holding authority to account. Instead we have the lowest form of journalism exploiting aggrieved parents and using one young child for cheap headlines.

There is, of course, a real issue to discuss in a reasonable way: how some young children are placed in homes that do not accommodate their cultural or religious needs – a fact highlighted for many years by many Muslim organisations working in the sector. Tay Jiva, a qualified social worker with 20 years of experience working with children in care, told me one example of a young Muslim Pakistani girl who grew up in white Christian homes, spending time at gospel churches. She lost her faith when she was in foster care, only to learn about Islam as an adult – a story likely to be common amongst the over 1,500 young Muslim children who have spent time in care at non-Muslim homes.

However, none of the papers framed this as a case study of an issue facing all communities. Nor did it appear to propose what should have been done to protect the best interests of the child given the Local Authority had attempted to find foster parents that were a closer fit for the child. Should she have remained with her mother despite being assessed to have been at risk? Should she have gone to her Muslim grandmother who does not speak English and has a temporary visa, before they had a chance to vet her and despite the protests of the child’s mother? Or was the option of very conservative Muslim foster parents who offered to help a reasonable short-term solution for the child?

The challenges we face in fostering could do without the race-baiting we have witnessed this week in the press. What could justify the lack of due diligence, the false outrage and the choice by the editors to frame this as a clash of religions, despite the ability to have it reported fairly as did the BBC?

Perhaps the need to sell a story quickly might trump the need for accuracy. However, I really worry that this is yet another indication that anti-Muslim bigotry has found a foothold not only at the extreme right but at the very centre ground. Many journalists appear to have a blind spot when reporting about Islam and  Muslims – a view that might explain why there have been a “consistent stream” of inaccurate stories about Muslims in the past year.

As we see here, it is not just the tabloids – but also The Times and The Sunday Times that are serial offenders: whether it is the false claim that “Enclaves of Islam see UK as 75 per cent Islamic”,unjustifiably calling a Muslim school “Islamist” or scaremongering that Muslims are “silent on terror”. Papers often provide an unchallenged platform to commentators who have a history of bigotry against Islam and Muslims, even when they write to spread demonising mainstream Muslim practices such as propagating the faith.

While it is true that Rupert Murdoch pronounced that “maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible” and that many see Fox News as an anti-Muslim propaganda outlet, I do not buy into the fact that UK editors are just blindly following Murdoch.

There is a vicious circle of narratives about Muslims being created, iterated and repeated by mainstream media outlets and shared by far-right extremists. Not only do these shape attitudes in the country: over 30 per cent of young children think Muslims are taking over England more than half of Britons believe Islam “poses a threat” to the West. They also create an “atmosphere of hostility” that, like hate crimes against Muslims, is on the rise.

With 40 neo-Nazis currently being investigated by police amid fears that they are plotting terrorist attacks against Muslims around the country, and with attitudes against Muslims hardening, why are the liberal elite rightly outraged in some cases involving other faiths but so silent when it comes to Muslims even when someone calls for an ending to “The Muslim Problem”?

There are real social issues we all face, and it requires a media to scrutinise them properly without having to castigate minorities. The problem with reporting fairly about Muslims lies at the very core of some of these newspapers – and we cannot be silent any more. We deserve better.

Miqdaad Versi is Assistant Secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain. His campaign for responsible reporting has elicited more than 30 corrections from national newspapers. He is writing in a personal capacity.

Photo: Getty
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The Universal Credit nightmare shows there’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea

The hardest thing to build into any benefits IT project is common sense.

The trouble with Universal Credit is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Labour has long backed the concept of rolling multiple benefits into one payment but studiously refused to implement it when in power. Why? Because it takes all the mess and complication that claimants have to navigate and transfers that to the government. It’s like Whitehall volunteering to find your next house, sort out the survey and fix the best mortgage for you. It sounds brilliant – and that should make you suspicious.

“I think it’s quite a good idea, having it all in one go,” says Jo Whitaker when I speak to her at home in Moulton, North Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the reality fell short. Diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016, Whitaker had to give up her cleaning business as she underwent chemotherapy. She was told – oh, happy day! – that her local jobcentre was one of those testing Universal Credit ahead of its countrywide roll-out.

There was a catch. In order for her to claim Universal Credit, her existing child and working tax credits had to be stopped for six weeks, while her eligibility for the single monthly payment was assessed. She created an online “journal” to record her income and provide supporting evidence and was told that she could apply for an advance, which would have to be paid back later, to cover the time she spent waiting.

She received her payments in November and December, then ran into a problem. Whitaker, a mother of three, owns a house jointly with her ex-husband, but it was on the market and had no tenants. (She was renting elsewhere.) This seems to have given the jobcentre computer conniptions: did Whitaker have an asset that meant her housing benefit should be reduced, or not?

She received a demand in her “journal” a few days before Christmas: show us that you’re paying rent, or we’ll stop your benefits. “I was on my fifth round of chemo and I wasn’t well at all,” she says. “After Christmas, I couldn’t get hold of anyone to give me a straight answer. This went on for about a month.” The January payment didn’t come. Whitaker spent hours on the phone – her mother, listening to our call, chimes in to amplify this point – and she eventually received a letter admitting that it was a mistake to withhold her benefit. “I can remember being on the phone, crying my eyes out,” she says. “Chemo, it does your brain in. It was the last thing I needed. It was an absolute nightmare.”

Yet Jo Whitaker’s story is not a particularly extreme one. She is, she says, lucky to have a great support network, and she never felt truly helpless. Her business experience helped her budget and cope with rectifying the jobcentre’s error. I’ll also admit that when I heard she had a house, I thought: hang on, why is she claiming benefits when she has an asset? As she talked, the situation became clear. But this is the kind of detail that computer systems struggle to deal with: the hardest thing to build into any IT project is common sense.

Many aren’t as resilient as Whitaker. New figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that around a quarter of new claimants wait more than six weeks for their first payment. And because Universal Credit is paid to tenants, rather than directly to landlords, it has significantly increased the number of people falling behind on their rent.

There’s a cruel double bind here. Most people claim benefits precisely because they are in difficult personal circumstances. They have lost their job, got sick, or broken up with a partner and had to move house. Those same circumstances make dealing with bureaucracy more challenging. When the computer says no, it doesn’t just take away one of half a dozen benefits; it can disrupt the only assistance people are getting.

The quiet unhappiness of Jo Whitaker’s story should worry the government. In 2015, the possibility of cuts to tax credits caused enough concern on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries that even Tory MPs quailed. George Osborne’s resulting fudge was to kick back the cuts, promising that “savings” would be found anyway as more people moved to Universal Credit.

The idea that this can be accomplished without people feeling noticeably poorer is optimistic. That it can be accomplished using the existing IT system is even more so. Universal Credit should be a pragmatic project, but it has always been politicised: first by Iain Duncan Smith’s evangelical insistence that he would “make work pay” (even though 60 per cent of UK households in poverty have at least one member who works) and then by his flouncing anger that the project was being used as a cover for “salami-slicing” the welfare budget. IDS must have been the last man in Britain to work out that Osborne wasn’t just pretending to be into austerity; he really loved it.

In 2013, the National Audit Office found that the Universal Credit programme was struggling with a “tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan”. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, then the chair of the public accounts committee, concluded that most of the £425m spent so far would have to be written off. The programme was “reset”.

That, in effect, is what Citizens Advice wants to happen again. The organisation is calling for a pause on the roll-out, which is scheduled to accelerate next month. “[It] is a disaster waiting to happen,” says its chief executive, Gillian Guy. “People face severe consequences, like visits from bailiffs and eviction, when they can’t pay their bills.”

Like Jo Whitaker, she believes that the “principles behind Universal Credit are sound”. But that won’t be a consolation to anyone left cold, hungry or homeless over Christmas. In politics, there’s nothing more dangerous than something that everyone thinks is a good idea. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left