Ruling

20480-17 Tower Hamlets Borough Council v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      25th April 2018

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 20480-17 Tower Hamlets Borough Council v The Times 

Summary of Complaint 

1. Tower Hamlets Borough Council complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Judge rules child must leave Muslim foster home”, published on 30 August 2017. The article was published in print and online. 

2. The 30 August article, the article under complaint, formed part of the newspaper’s coverage of a child’s fostering arrangement. Articles published on 28 and 29 August reported a number of concerns about the cultural appropriateness of the child’s fostering placements, attributed to a social services supervisor, and friends of the child’s mother. The 30 August article reported that following a family court hearing about the child’s care arrangements the previous day, 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”. 

3. The article reported that the court “ruled that she should not remain in the placement organised by [the complainant]” and that the court was told that the family’s wish for the child to be placed in the care of her grandmother had been under consideration for months. The article noted that “all parties, including Tower Hamlets, supported the decision”. The final paragraph of the article quoted a spokesperson for the complainant who said, in part, “we have always been working towards the child being looked after by a family member and will continue to do so”. The article reported that when the newspaper told the complainant it would be writing about the case, it “tried to block the story”, and wrote to the court where the case was being heard, to complain that publication of the article would be an offence. It then reported that security staff at the court ordered its journalist to leave, and threatened an escorted removal, but that the journalist was readmitted when the judge heard the newspaper wished to attend the hearing. 

4. The complainant said that the 30 August article created a distorted impression of its position in the legal proceedings and the judge’s ruling, implying wrongly that it had been a passive party to the judge’s decision to “remove” the child from her foster carers, when in fact it had actively sought to place the child with her maternal family – and suggesting misleadingly that the judge’s comment 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 applied to the court for this placement to be made. The complainant said that it had not been criticised by the judge; this was supported by the fact that the judge had later said the placements were appropriate in the circumstances. The complainant explained that the delay had been caused by the need to make checks of the grandmother as a carer before the child could be placed with her; these had been delayed because the grandmother had been living abroad. When they were completed (before the publication of the Times coverage) it applied to the court for the child to be placed into the grandmother’s care. 

5. While the complainant did not complain under Clause 1 (Accuracy) about the 28 August article and subsequent coverage on 29 August, it said that the 30 August coverage breached Clause 1 as it did not include further information about the case that had come to light through the court hearing. In particular, the complainant noted that on 29 August the court had heard that the child’s grandmother was in fact a Muslim. It said that the omission of this information from 30 August article, which had the headline: “Judge rules child must leave Muslim foster home” -was misleading, and unfair to the foster carers concerned. The complainant said that if the newspaper felt unable to report the child’s grandmother’s religious background, out of a concern to protect her anonymity, it should have dropped the religious element from the story, and not referred to the religion of the foster carers. The complainant also said that at the hearing on 29 August the court had heard from the child’s court-appointed guardian that she had visited the foster home, interviewed the child and found that she was settled and well cared for by the foster carer. The court summary also reported that the decision to place the child with her grandmother was not the result of any influence arising out of media reports. It said that these points should have been reported. 

6. The complainant said that it had no issue with the newspaper’s reporter attending the hearing. However, it said that the article gave the impression that it had tried to block the newspaper from reporting in court, which was misleading. 

7. The complainant said that it was not asking IPSO to adjudicate a complaint in relation to the concerns raised about the care received by the child from her foster carers, as reported in the article on 28 August. Nevertheless, it wished to note that the outcome of its investigation of these concerns was published in November 2017. It said that its investigation found that the foster carers provided warm and appropriate care to the child at all times, and that specific concerns about the cultural appropriateness of the placements were not substantiated. 

8. The newspaper said it had become aware in the summer of serious concerns surrounding the fostering arrangements of a child taken into care in Tower Hamlets. It said that these concerns were recorded in the reports of a care worker responsible for supervising the child’s family contact sessions, and had been expressed by family members. It said the family had made the court aware of its concerns about the appropriateness of the foster placements, and had been seeking since March to have the child removed to the care of her maternal grandmother, but that the complainant had opposed the moves. It said that there was a public interest in the story, because it seemed to confirm a fear that foster care in Britain was not working to place children with carers who speak their language, share their faith and are matches for their ethnic and cultural heritage. It said that additionally, the reporting provided further evidence that Tower Hamlets was a borough in which vulnerable children were particularly at risk, as reflected by a critical Ofsted report in April 2017. 

9. The newspaper said that its articles did not seek to criticise or demonise all Muslims, nor all Muslim foster carers, nor all Muslim foster carers who provide a home for a non-Muslim child, let alone all cross-cultural foster placements. It noted that in its leading article on 28 August, it stated that “fostering is an act of great selflessness. Any carer who opens their home is to be commended for offering refuge to vulnerable children”. It said that its concern in this case was that this particular child’s foster carers “seemed ill-suited to meeting the needs of this particular child”. 

10. 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, and that a request to this effect had first been made in March 2017, shortly after the child was taken into care; the complainant was then instructed to undertake an assessment of the grandmother, by a specified date. It said that having failed to do so, the complainant then opposed the mother’s request at a later hearing for the child to live with the grandmother, and the mother’s request was rejected by the court. The newspaper said that this was recorded by the judge at the 29 August hearing, who said “The local authority delayed, unfortunately, in completing that assessment. It may have been that back in June a placement with the grandmother could have been secured”. 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 Hamlet’s 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 its article made clear that “all parties, including [the complainant], supported the decision”. 

11. The newspaper said its 30 August report of the 29 August hearing could not be criticised as inaccurate, because it failed to reflect views expressed by the judge at a later date. The newspaper said that at the 29 August hearing, the judge had directed at the complainant some specific questions, reflecting the concerns it had expressed in its coverage, and which were shared by the child’s mother. She said to the complainant’s barrister: “You would presumably accept that the priority should be an appropriate, culturally matched placement that meets the child’s needs in terms of ethnicity, culture and religion?”, and later stated that “I’m quite satisfied that the concerns that have been raised in the press reports in respect of this child address matters of legitimate public interest. I want you as a responsible local authority to consider this case and any allegations relating to it.” 

12. The newspaper said that its approach to what information to include in the 30 August article was governed by its obligation not to publish any details which might identify the child. At the end of the 29 August hearing, it said that its reporter told the court it would not be publishing details of the grandmother’s religious and ethnic heritage, so as to avoid any risk of identification. It said that neither the judge nor the complainant demurred at that proposal. The newspaper said that the Case Management Order, published the following day, put into the public domain some information about the family background, which it had not expected to have been able to publish. 

13. The newspaper said that that in any event, the grandmother’s religious heritage was disputed, as reflected in the Case Management Order, which stated: “documents including the assessment of the maternal grandparents state that they are of a Muslim background but are non-practising. The child’s mother says they are of Christian heritage”. Furthermore, the newspaper said that there was a significant difference between the non- Muslim child in this case being cared for by a non-practising Muslim grandmother, and being entrusted to foster parents who appeared to be adherents to a particular, conservative form of Islam. It denied that omission of the disputed claim about the child’s grandmother’s religious heritage was misleading. 

14. In response to the complainant’s concern that the 30 August article did not report the findings of the child’s court-appointed Guardian as to the care provided by one of the foster carers, the newspaper said it was unsure of how far these concerns overlapped with the concerns it had raised in its previous coverage; there was certainly no time for the guardian to have made any thorough investigation of the further allegations it had presented only two days previously. The newspaper said that its reporter had notes of the following exchange at the 29 August hearing: 

“Judge: I haven’t seen those [supervised meeting] contact notes and I wish to see them. I want you [the complainant] to file an additional statement to address the additional concerns that have been raised in the press reports, assuming these are concerns which the mother shares?”

[Counsel for the mother confirmed in court that she shared those concerns]

Judge: Additional matters identified in the newspapers have not formed part of material filed with the court to date. I want the local authority to identify the evidence and to file it within the next seven days.

I wish the local authority to make further inquiries and carry out an investigation in relation to the additional concerns that have been raised, because I’m told the mother shares those concerns.

There are additional matters of concern that have been raised by recent press reporting…[the child making] derogatory comments about white women, pressure placed on the child to speak Arabic, [the child saying] Christmas is stupid. I want you [Tower Hamlets] to address that in a statement by the social worker. I want to know where that comes from. [I want to see the] contact supervision reports. The issue has already been raised and I want you as a responsible local authority to consider this case and any allegations relating to it.

I’m quite satisfied that the concerns that have been raised in the press reports in respect of this child address matters of legitimate public interest.” 

15. The newspaper said that where the judge had said that the matters raised in its report on 28 August now required investigation, the fact that the 30 August article did not refer to findings by the court-appointed guardian did not make it misleading. It said that in any event, its article on 31 August, the next day, reported that “a guardian was said to have visited the child at her foster home and found her ‘settled and well cared for‘”. 

16. In relation to the journalist’s interaction with the security guards at the court, the newspaper said that the facts were as it had stated them in the article, which did not claim that the complainant objected to its reporter’s attendance at the hearing. 

Relevant Code Provisions 

17. Clause 1 (Accuracy) 

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text. 

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and where appropriate an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator. 

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for. 

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. 

Findings of the Committee 

17. The article under complaint was one of a series reporting on the dispute over the appropriateness of the child’s foster placement. The Committee’s investigation related specifically to the issues raised in the complaint, which were focussed on the complainant’s role in the legal proceedings.

18. The headline of the 30 August article claimed that the judge had ruled the child “must leave Muslim foster home”. The subheadline referred to the judge praising the newspaper for “exposing council’s failure” and stated that “the judge ordered the council to conduct an urgent investigation into issues reported by The Times”. In the second paragraph, the article claimed that the child “should not remain in the placement organised by Tower Hamlets”. The headline on the story continued on page 6 was “Girl’s welfare is the priority, says judge”. The article noted that the judge said that she had made her decision, not because of “undue media involvement”, but “because of the evidence available to the court today, that the grandmother is an appropriate carer for the child”, and that all parties, including [the complainant], supported the decision”. It also quoted the complainant saying that “we have always been working towards the child being looked after by a family member”. However, the article did not make clear that the application for the child to live with the grandmother had in fact been filed by the complainant. Read as a whole, 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. 

19. 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 Committee noted the newspaper’s position that the judge had said that the complainant had delayed in completing its assessment for the grandmother, and that this was unfortunate; this may have been a legitimate basis for criticism. However, 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 (i). The newspaper made no proposals to correct this distortion, in breach of Clause 1 (ii). 

20. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that it was misleading for the 30 August article not to report that the child’s grandmother also had a Muslim background, as had been heard in court, where the previous coverage had emphasised the religion of the foster carers. The concern raised in the previous two days’ coverage was that foster placements organised by the complainant were not culturally matched with the child, due to the religious practices of the foster parents. It appeared to be accepted by all parties however that the grandmother was not a religiously observant Muslim, and that she was a culturally appropriate placement. For these reasons, the Committee did not find that the omission of information about the grandmother’s background in the article constituted a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. The Committee noted that in a subsequent article (published 31 August), which reported on the published Case Management Order, the newspaper reported that the judge said the child’s grandparents were “of a Muslim background but are non-practising”. 

21. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that it was misleading to report the concerns raised about the cultural appropriateness of the match, including concerns raised in social services reports, without taking the opportunity to report that the child’s Guardian believed her to be settled and well cared for by her current foster carers. It was not in dispute that the concerns about the cultural appropriateness of the foster placements had been raised. That a separate positive assessment of one of the foster carers had been made by the appointed Guardian, did not demonstrate that the claims in the earlier coverage were untrue. Indeed, the judge directed the council to investigate those concerns at the 29 August hearing. In these circumstances, the omission of this information did not make the 30 August article misleading, such as to breach Clause 1. 

22. The article reported that the complainant had contacted the court to say that court documents had been unlawfully leaked, and that publication of an article would be an offence; this was not disputed by the complainant and it was clear that this was the basis for the article’s claim that the complainant had tried to “block the story”. The article then reported that security staff had tried to prevent the journalist attending the hearing, before the judge was told he wished to attend, and he was readmitted. The Committee considered that the article did not imply that the security staff were acting at the request of the complainant, simply because the security staff’s actions were reported immediately after describing the complainant’s objections to the reporting. The article was not misleading in the manner alleged, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

Conclusions 

23. The complaint was upheld. 

Remedial action required 

24. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. 

25. In circumstances where the newspaper had published an article that contained a significant distortion, and not made any offer to correct this, the appropriate remedy was the publication of an adjudication. 

26. The 30 August article was the main article on the paper’s front page, and continued onto page 6. The Committee identified that the article contained a distortion, but that it remained an accurate account of the outcome of the judge’s decision. Taking this into account, the Committee decided that the adjudication should be published in full on page 6 of the newspaper, or further forward. The headline of the adjudication must make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint against The Times, and refer to its subject matter; it must be agreed in advance. 

27. The adjudication should also be published on the publication’s website, with a link to the full adjudication (including the headline) appearing in the top 50% of stories on the publication’s website for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. In relation to the online version of the 30 August article, if the newspaper intends to continue to publish the article without amendment to cure the distortion identified by the Committee in paragraph 27 of the decision, the full text of the adjudication should also be published on that page, beneath the headline. If amended, a link to the adjudication should be published with the article, explaining that it was the subject of an IPSO adjudication, and noting the amendments made. 

28. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows: 

Tower Hamlets Borough Council complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) in an article headlined “Judge rules child must leave Muslim foster home”, published on 30 August 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 30 August article was the third article on this case, following coverage in 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 30 August 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 Hamlet’s 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. 

Date complaint received: 01/12/2017

Date decision issued: 05/04 2018