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11 September 2018

The thirst for stories that vilify Muslims has eroded basic principles of journalism

The Times’s Muslim foster care story has been shown to be plain wrong, but there’s been no apology.

By Nesrine Malik

There are times when the Overton Window shifts right before your very eyes. It is bewildering, with the texture of a particular kind of nightmare, where a horrific thing is happening but banality continues around it. You find yourself pointing to it in horror as it creeps away, and simultaneously falling in shock that everyone else is still going about their business.

This is what it has been like to live through how Muslims are talked about in the UK. Over the past decade or so, reporting on Muslims has gone from dog-whistling to fearmongering, to complete fabrication without consequences. To observe it doing so has been to watch a race to the bottom of standards violation.

You would expect it from the Mail, or even the Telegraph, but the latest from the Times shows just how much the media’s fondness of pushing a certain line on Muslims has gone.

Last week, the final court judgement on a story run by the Times in August 2017 was released. The paper had published a front page story in which it claimed that a “Christian child [was] forced into Muslim foster care”. The paper reported that a “white Christian child” had been placed with two Muslim households by Tower Hamlets council over the past six months. The child had allegedly at one point burst into tears, asking not to be returned to one foster carer because “they don’t speak English”. 

The paper then followed up with another front page story, claiming that the attention it had brought to the case had resulted in the child being moved. According to the most recent judgement, almost the entire story was incorrect.

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In summary on Brian Cathcart’s blog, the final judgement concluded that:

1) The Times’s primary source for its inflammatory story – the mother of the “white, Christian child” taken into care – was very far from a reliable witness, and no story should have ever been published based on her evidence.

2) Far from being an “inappropriate” placing, as the Times forcefully asserted, a Muslim foster home was probably the most familiar environment that could have been found for a child who had spent much of her short life with Muslim grandparents in a Muslim country.

The full report of the judgement is here.

Earlier this year, Tower Hamlets raised a complaint against the paper (by then on its third front page dedicated to this story). Ipso upheld it. Notice of the ruling by Ipso was published on the front page of print edition. Yet last week’s court judgement added more damning detail to the Ipso ruling on breach of accuracy in that it proved the entire premise of the story, that a child was placed in an unfamiliar and bewildering Muslim environment, was wrong.

There was no comment on these new revelations that essentially discredit the whole investigation.

The paper has not issued an apology, and the reporter responsible for the piece, Andrew Norfolk, has not resigned, or even made a statement. Neither has the editor, John Witherow. When I asked why the Times had not apologised or withdrawn the story, the paper responded with the statement “we ran the Ipso adjudication on the front page in April and in more detail on page two.” 

It’s at moments like these I wonder what goes through an editor’s or reporter’s mind late at night when they are in repose. When the din of the office has stilled and the emails have slowed. When the buoying camaraderie of their team is not there to reassure them that they are on some shared worthy mission. Is it shame softened by a sense of martyrdom that perhaps the story was wrong, but the fuss around it proves liberal bias?

I really wonder. Because it’s hard to think that anyone is so cynical or mendacious that they would knowingly fabricate a story, or report it sloppily, and then blithely move on without acknowledgement when they were caught.

Perhaps it is naive, but I suspect that Andrew Norfolk, whenever he is alone with his thoughts, probably regrets the whole affair but thinks that he did his best with the information provided, and that there was no pressure at all, either direct or subliminal, to back the data into a narrative about victimising an innocent Christian girl by placing her with Muslim carers whose religion was foreign to her. None of which turned out to be true.

But the refusal to offer a resignation, termination or make any sort of public statement or apology means that something else stares us in the face, something from which we cannot look away. There is such a thirst for stories that vilify Muslims and their alleged sponsors that they have eroded some basic principles of journalism.

Whether the Times made an error of judgement or an error of reporting still requires an apology, whatever their intentions were. But the steely silence shows that when it comes to Muslims, journalistic integrity can lapse without consequence or apology because there is no popular demand for it, and because we now officially hold reporting about Muslims to a different standard.

And so what are we left with? When a paper that is not a tabloid, and which has a respectable investigations team, publishes four erroneous front page stories and makes no effort to explain itself, what is it left with? Are these people still journalists? If you cannot meet basic standards of honesty and accuracy, which is your actual job, nor make amends when you do not, are you still a journalist?

You see, this is the thing about powerful popular strains of prejudice, they cannibalise other values. Think of Islamophobia as a flesh eating virus that bored through the principles of the involved Times journalists and rendered them zombie-like, doing the bidding of the story that people desperately want to hear – the one that has been told for years about Muslims defiling your sacred land, enabled by a PC state. 

And so the Overton Window shifts right before our eyes once again. After an Ipso complaint is upheld, and final damning verdict discredits the entire story and paints of an image of a child who had to contend with the distress of a press scrum, there is little outrage and there is no apology. If you visit the Times’s website, the story is still up.

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