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.