When a newspaper gets a story wrong, should it apologise?
Since summer, the Times has done the opposite – not once but twice doubling down on what has turned out to be a misleading and divisive headline, supposedly about a “Christian child forced into Muslim foster care”. The piece was described by the head of the government inquiry into foster care provision, Sir Martin Narey, as “dishonest”.
Even after a statement “agreed between all parties and approved by the court” had deconstructed each and every argument used by the Times, the paper accused said it merely presented “an alternative narrative” to its own.
A recap: the Times alleged that the foster carer could not speak English, that the young child’s cross was removed, that the girl was not allowed to eat her favourite Italian meal because it contained bacon, and that the foster carer said “Christmas and Easter are stupid” and “European women are stupid and alcoholic”. Each one of these allegations was investigated and concluded to be false.
One has to baulk at the audacity of the Times. This is a paper which at its best is a standard-bearer of everything Fleet Street should want to be. It carries the hallmark of quality – it is therefore a shame it has fallen so far short of its standards on Muslim-related issues.
Could the paper sincerely believe the aforementioned allegations of an aggrieved mother whose young girl had to be taken away for her own safety by the council? Even when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary, provided and agreed upon by the court, the mother’s lawyer, the grandmother of the girl and the council?
The Times must realise its position on this article is no longer tenable and that the narrative it pushed out, to “reveal the failings of safeguarding authorities”, is fundamentally and inexcusably flawed.
However, a mea culpa at this stage and after staking so much on this story would not be easy. It would require the admission of serious failings, and reflection on why this happened in the first place. In particular, the paper needs to consider the fact the initial story was not newsworthy, save for the anti-Muslim race-baiting narrative, that the approach of relying on unreliable and unsubstantiated sources is risky, and that the editorial procedures that promoted the story to the front page for four days appear to be at best inconsistent when it comes to reporting about Muslims.
However, the reality is that the Times believes it can get away with it.
The press regulator Ipso refused to rule on this case. Its excuse, as outlined in a letter to complainants by the executive, was ironically a concern for “the effect… this coverage may have on those involved in the case, and particularly the child”.
To the astonishment of anyone who expects a press regulator to regulate the press, Ipso has abdicated responsibility, risking giving a green light to any journalist who wishes to lie as they invade the lives of young children.
The real damage that this story has caused is worth repeating. Firstly, the impact on the foster family of this deeply personal and vicious assault (despite the reality that the girl missed the family and had a “warm relationship” with them.) It has also had potentially “disastrous” consequences for young children, should it deter people from ethnic minority backgrounds from becoming foster parents.
But the damage to many people’s faith in journalism is also at stake.
This was not an opinion piece from a known controversialist in a tabloid newspaper, such as Rod Liddle’s belittling of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people, Trevor Kavanagh’s Nazi-like language about “the Muslim problem”, or Trevor Phillips calling the decision to place the girl with Muslim foster carers “child abuse”.
It wasn’t even buried within the newspaper, such as Andrew Gilligan’s bogus claim that “Enclaves of Islam see UK as 75 per cent Muslim” in the Sunday Times, or the Times’ unjustifiable description of a school as “Islamist”, both of which have since been corrected.
This race-baiting anti-Muslim story was on the front page.
As the press regulator fails in its duty, and the majority of journalists fail to challenge the anti-Muslim hysteria being fuelled by national newspapers, we cannot be silent and do nothing.
At the very least, we must hold the Times to account and demand a retraction and front-page apology, proportionate to the prominence of the original error. Nothing less will do.
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