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Media watchdog upholds complaint by council over “distorted” coverage of foster case

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) has upheld a complaint by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets against a national newspaper’s coverage of a fostering case.

IPSO concluded that The Times had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) in an article headlined ‘Judge rules child must leave Muslim foster home’, which was published on 30 August 2017.

Tower Hamlets complained amongst other things that the article created a “distorted” impression of its position in the legal proceedings and the judge’s ruling.

The newspaper was required to publish IPSO’s ruling as a remedy, and did so on page 2. The ruling – containing the background to the case – was as follows:

IPSO ruling in Tower Hamlets case

Tower Hamlets borough council complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) in an article headlined “Judge rules child must leave Muslim foster home”, published on August 30, 2017. The complaint was upheld, and The Times has been required to publish this ruling as a remedy to the breach.

The article formed part of the newspaper’s coverage of a child’s fostering arrangement in Tower Hamlets, in which concerns had been expressed that a Christian child’s cultural and religious needs were not being adequately met by her Muslim foster carers. The August 30 article was the third article on this case, following coverage on the two previous days.

The article was about a family court hearing that had taken place the previous day, and reported that the child was “removed from her Muslim foster parents yesterday and reunited with her family as a judge urged councils to seek ‘culturally matched placements’ for vulnerable children”.

The complainant said that the August 30 article created a distorted impression of its position in the legal proceedings and the judge’s ruling. It said it implied wrongly that it had been a passive party to the judge’s decision to “remove” the child from her foster carers – rather than the true position, that it had actively sought to place the child with her maternal family – and suggested misleadingly that a comment made by the judge about “culturally matched placements” was intended as a criticism of the complainant. The complainant said that rather than only “supporting the decision”, as the article said, it had in fact applied to the court for this placement to be made.

The newspaper said that the family’s wish for the girl to be placed in the temporary care of her grandmother had been under consideration for a number of months. It said that the complainant had failed to undertake its assessment of the grandmother in a timely way, with the consequence being that when the mother requested in June for the child to live with the grandmother, the complainant opposed the request, and it was rejected by the court. For these reasons, the newspaper said that while it would have been strictly accurate, in the context of the previous day’s court case, to have reported the child’s placement with her grandmother as Tower Hamlets’ initiative, this would have been a distortion of the bigger picture, which was that it had made an application in favour of the move, which the mother had been requesting for six months. It said that in any event, the article made clear that “all parties, including [the complainant], supported the decision”.

Ipso’s Complaints Committee found that the article gave the impression that the judge had found that the placement was a “failure” by the council; and that this was why she was “removing” the child from her current foster carers, and placing the child with the grandmother.

The Committee ruled that this was a distortion. The complainant had been in the process of assessing the grandmother, and when those assessments were complete, it applied to the court for the child to be placed with her. The complainant had in fact agreed at the hearing that the child should live with the grandmother. The impression given by the article was that the judge’s decision represented a finding against the complainant’s assessment of the child’s needs in organising the foster placements. This was not what the court had decided, or an implication of what the court had decided. The Committee therefore found that the newspaper had failed to take care not to publish distorted information, in breach of Clause 1.

Tower Hamlets said that it was only when the judge took the unusual decision to publish the Family Court Order because of the media coverage, that it was able to make a complaint.

Welcoming the ruling, Will Tuckley, its Chief Executive, said: “We felt it was important to make the complaint to defend our foster carers and protect children in foster care, along with standing up for our diverse communities.

“We always said that, although cultural and religious matches are very important in foster care cases, there are other important factors to consider such as the child being close to their school and blood relatives.

“Ultimately we have to make the best decision taking into account the foster carers that are available in an emergency situation. What matters most is that we place the child in a loving and supportive home.”

Tuckley added: “From the start we had significant concerns about the validity of the allegations about the foster carers. For example, one allegation was that they did not speak English, even though that is a prerequisite for any foster carers.

“An investigation into all the allegations in The Times article later found them to be unsubstantiated. The independent court appointed guardian also found the child to be ‘settled and well cared for’ by the foster carers.” [The court order containing this and other case details can be found here.]

Tower Hamlets’ chief executive continued: “The impression given in the article that there was a finding against the council’s assessment of the child’s needs in organising the placement was found by IPSO to be distorted information. Indeed we were impressed by the care and commitment of the foster carers.

“The difficulty in reporting foster cases is that local authorities are bound by legal restrictions. That means we cannot give the other side of the story.”

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