Brian Cathcart, Professor of Journalism at Kingston University, on his new report examining how a reporter at The Times newspaper published three front-page stories which were fundamentally wrong and damaging to perceptions of Muslims

To lose one parent, declared Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, may be considered a misfortune, but to lose two looks like carelessness. So it is with journalism: getting one story wrong may be bad luck – every reporter is fallible – but getting two wrong begins to look like carelessness.

In the space of 15 months, Andrew Norfolk, the chief investigative reporter of The Times and a multiple award-winner, got three stories fundamentally wrong. Three. 

And they were not run-of-the mill stories. Each was a front-page lead – considered by his paper to be its biggest and best story of the day. Each turned into a campaign, waged over several days and backed by editorials and comment articles. And, most strikingly, even though Muslims were at that time experiencing peak levels of hate crime, each of these fundamentally flawed stories portrayed Muslims as threatening. 

As the veteran journalist Paddy French and I make clear in our new report published today, ‘Unmasked: Andrew Norfolk, The Times Newspaper and Anti-Muslim Reporting – A Case to Answer‘, this is way beyond carelessness. 

What were the stories? First, and most notoriously, Norfolk stirred outrage at the case of a five-year-old Christian child placed with apparently bigoted and bullying Muslim foster carers. But, the girl was actually very familiar with Muslim family life, and the foster families won praise for the care they gave her – not least from the girl’s own grandmother. 

Then, Norfolk accused a small human rights charity, Just Yorkshire, of publishing a report about an MP that was so scathing it prompted death threats against her. The problem here was that no death threats could be traced back to the report. 

Norfolk rarely quotes more than fragments, frequently lifts them out of context without explanation, and is not afraid of clipping off words that are inconvenient.

And, in the third case, Norfolk claimed Rotherham Council had encouraged a convicted Muslim rapist to seek rights over, and visits from, the child of his white victim. Again, it just wasn’t true: the council fulfilled a legal obligation to inform the father of impending care proceedings in relation to the child and that was all. 

How can a senior reporter on The Times get three big stories wrong? This is a newspaper, after all, whose owners promise readers “the highest standards of accuracy”, with journalists “expected to follow standard journalistic best practice in verifying stories” and to take “all possible steps” to make sure their stories are reliable.

‘Unmasked’ sets out in great detail what is known about these three cases, and the patterns are clear in the behaviour of Norfolk and his newspaper.

The most striking is the omission or marginalisation of information undermining the thrust of each article. Thus, in the ‘Muslim foster care’ story The Times‘ readers were not told that the paper’s principal source of information, the child’s mother, had a criminal record, a serious drink problem and a record of dishonesty – and that her daughter had been taken away from her in alarming circumstances for the child’s own safety. 

Paddy French and I looked into this in detail and we concluded that no responsible and conscientious reporter would have failed to ascertain this information before publishing. We also concluded that, knowing this information, no such reporter would have published the story in anything like the form it took.

In the case of Just Yorkshire, not only did Norfolk get that key fact about death threats wrong, but he failed to mention – in his description of the allegedly “scathing” report relating to Rotherham MP Sarah Champion – that it contained praise for her; that it explicitly stated she was not to blame for the town’s racial tensions; and that it concluded with a call for all Rotherham people to work together for better race relations. 

In the case of the rapist father, Norfolk began his account by alleging that the council “invited a jailed sex offender to play a part in the future of the child of a woman he raped”, but withheld until the 19th paragraph the information that the council insisted – correctly, as events proved – that it had followed nationally-established procedures and nothing more. 

Even though Muslims were at that time experiencing peak levels of hate crime, each of these fundamentally flawed stories portrayed Muslims as threatening.

There are other patterns too, notably the misuse of quotations. Norfolk rarely quotes more than fragments, frequently lifts them out of context without explanation, and is not afraid of clipping off words that are inconvenient. Perhaps the most striking instance was his willingness to take the word “perverse”, when used by a speaker in the context of a “perverse situation”, and apply it – in the second paragraph of the rapist father story – to a noun that suited him: “decision”. Thus, he alleged, without justification, that ‘campaigners’ had claimed the council made a ‘perverse’ decision. 

All of our allegations were put to The Times in April, but it did not respond.  

This story of Andrew Norfolk and The Times is not one of mere carelessness. Read Unmasked and see for yourself.

Andrew Norfolk and The Times: The Story Behind the Stories

When writing these three front-page articles, each of which placed Muslims in positions of conflict with wider society, Norfolk failed to include comments from any Muslim individuals or organisations. 

When Norfolk chose to denounce as inappropriate one alleged instance of a Christian child in the care of a Muslim foster family, he knew that it is far, far more common for ethnic majority children to be assigned to white families.

He repeated as evidence of bigotry an allegation that a foster carer had removed the child’s religious cross and made no allowance for an innocent explanation – though the explanation proved to be entirely innocent. 

He alleged that a foster carer wore the niqab – covering the whole head apart from the eyes – when, in fact, she wore the hijab, covering only the hair. He went on to present the niqab as a sign of bigotry. 

Norfolk presented as evidence of extremism a quotation from Just Yorkshire saying that Sarah Champion MP had “fanned the flames of racial hatred” by writing an article in The Sun, but failed to mention that Champion herself admitted The Sun article was “inflammatory” and “could be taken to vilify an entire community”. 

In the case of the rapist father, Norfolk was quick to point out that the father was Pakistani, in defiance of the code of practice accepted by The Times, which states that race should only be mentioned if “genuinely relevant”. 

Strikingly, Norfolk’s presentation of the Muslims as threats to British society match the line taken by the newspaper in comment articles and editorials over several years – as explored by Professor Julian Petley in ‘Unmasked’.   

Byline Times contacted The Times for a response to the report today, but received no response.   

Brian Cathcart is Professor of Journalism at Kingston University London and the author of ‘The Case of Stephen Lawrence’ (1999)


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