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The Times should apologise for its reporting of the Muslim foster care story

The newspaper believes it can get away with this misleading and divisive narrative.

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.

The story has also strengthened the narrative of the far right, who used this “clash of religions” trope to propagate their hate.

But the damage to many people’s faith in journalism is also at stake.

Some, such as Jamie Grierson at the Guardian and Callum May at the BBC, have covered the story brilliantly and persistently. But the lack of apology from the Times is shameful. 

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”.

Nor was it an opinion column by an “expert”, such as historian Niall Fergusson suggesting Muslims are “colonising” Europe, or Richard Kemp stirring up fear about Muslims in our armed forces.

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

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Will the Brexit Cabinet talks end in a “three baskets” approach?

The joy of the three baskets idea is that everyone gets to tell themselves that it will be their basket that ends up the fullest. 

It's decision day in the Brexit talks. Again.

The Brexit inner Cabinet will meet to hammer out not its final position, but the shape of its negotiating position. The expected result: an agreement on an end state in which the United Kingdom agrees it will follow EU regulations as it were still a member, for example on aviation; will agree to follow EU objectives but go about them in its own way, for example on recycling, where the British government wants to do more on plastic and less on glass; and finally, in some areas, it will go its way completely, for instance on financial services. Or as it has come to be known in Whitehall, the "three baskets" approach.

For all the lengthy run-up, this bit isn't expected to be difficult: the joy of the three baskets idea is that everyone gets to tell themselves that it will be their basket that ends up the fullest. There are two difficulties: the first is that the EU27 won't play ball, and the second is that MPs will kick off when it emerges that their preferred basket is essentially empty.

The objections of the EU27 are perhaps somewhat overwritten. The demands of keeping the Irish border open, maintaining Europol and EU-wide defence operations means that in a large number of areas, a very close regulatory and political relationship is in everyone's interests. But everyone knows that in order for the Conservative government to actually sign the thing, there is going to have to be some divergence somewhere.

The bigger problem is what happens here at home when it turns out that the third basket - that is to say, full regulatory autonomy - is confined to fishing and the "industries of the future". The European Research Group may have a few more letters left to send yet.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.