Times editor John Witherow insisted that an award-winning journalist write a story about a “white Christian” girl’s placement with Muslim foster parents, in spite of his “significant misgivings”, because it had been handed to the editor by an oligarch friend, an employment tribunal has been told.
Andrew Norfolk, who had previously won several awards for his exposure of the Rotherham sex grooming scandal, telephoned a former colleague because he was concerned about the story and wanted advice, the tribunal in Edinburgh heard.
Martin Barrow, a former Times news editor and a foster parent himself, said in a witness statement: “The story concerned allegations that a child who was in foster care with a Muslim couple had been treated poorly due to the foster couple’s imposition of their religious and cultural views on the child. The source for the story – the ‘oligarch friend’ of Mr Witherow – was understood, Mr Norfolk said, to be related to the child’s birth-mother, from whose custody the child had been removed.
“Mr Norfolk told me that he had significant misgivings about the detailed allegations made by the birth-mother’s family that the “white, Christian child” was unhappy and being mistreated. I told Mr Norfolk that given the source of the story and the basic inaccuracies in some of the allegations made that I shared his misgivings and strongly advised him not to proceed.
“Mr Norfolk replied that the Editor, Mr Witherow, was insistent as the story had come via personal contact with a wealthy individual related to the birth mother.
“It was clear to me from our conversation that Mr Norfolk was being put under pressure by Mr Witherow to pursue a story where the facts as presented and the reliability of the supposed witnesses was at best highly questionable. “I was very surprised when the story appeared as the splash in the next morning’s Times with Andrew Norfolk’s byline still on it.”
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The story became the subject of controversy and it later emerged that several of the allegations about the foster parents – including that they did not speak English – were unfounded and that the child herself was of Muslim heritage. She eventually went to live with her Muslim grandmother, who did not speak English.
The barrister cross-examining for The Times, Jane Callan, described Mr Barrow’s evidence as “tosh” and suggested that he had invented the story because of his antipathy towards Mr Witherow.
Mr Barrow denied that he had any antipathy towards the editor. Their paths had barely crossed in the brief time he worked under him as he had left his post as news editor – which would have brought them into close contact – to write about health issues for the paper.
The exchange came in the second week of an employment tribunal hearing in Edinburgh in which Katherine O’Donnell is alleging that she was unfairly dismissed because of transphobic discrimination.
The Times denies her claim and is sending several senior executives to give evidence to the tribunal. Mr Witherow is due to take the stand on Friday.