What’s black and white and read all over?

Lord Justice Leveson - the Leveson InquiryOver the past week, there was a big row in the press about three children who had been fostered for eight weeks by a couple who were members of UKIP (and who were heterosexual, as UKIP does not hold with gay foster parents).

The story the press were telling was that the evil social workers of Rotherham had taken these children away from righteous foster parents just because of the fosterers party membership. This was a good story and got lots of people talking seriously about UKIP and grumbling about social workers.

By the way, between social workers and a newspaper, I’m more likely to trust the social workers. Social workers are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to child protection. If they take children away from their parents, the media get on their case, attacking the social workers for breaking up families and acting with unbridled power.

If they leave children with their parents and the children are seriously hurt or killed, the media get on their case, attacking the social workers for failing to protect the children.

No social worker could be quoted by or be interviewed by the press to give more public information about her clients, and especially not about vulnerable children in need of care and protection. What the journalists on the Rotherham case told the British public was probably technically within a strict interpretation of the Editor’s Code:

the foundation stone of the UK press self-regulatory system. It sets out the rules that the industry itself has voluntarily drawn up and pledged to accept.

Officially, a row about whether or not a couple could usefully be foster parents to children with an immigrant background if the couple were members of the UKIP, the anti-immigration party, had nothing to do with the by-election being held in Rotherham. (In which, by yet another coincidence, UKIP scored its highest-ever share of the vote in a Westminster parliamentary election. In Rotherham. Oddly enough.)

UKIP candidate Jane Collins in Rotherham

Practically speaking, though UKIP still don’t have a single MP, they come out of this with the BBC in a by-election analysis asking “Are UKIP the new Lib Dems?” because UKIP came second to Labour in Rotherham, beating the Tories into fifth place after the BNP and Respect, and the LibDems at eighth place.

Much talk was had of whether the social workers were the new thought police, questions were asked on Question Time, but no one that I saw in the national press during the pre-byelection days, and certainly no tabloid journalist, seemed to stop to think: great news story though this is, is it actually true?

Much easier, instead of thinking for yourself, to put out the tabloid-approved line about social workers: to help UKIP along (I’m sure as can be that this part was pure coincidence, really!) in a week of three by-elections. This is not news: it is pre-approved propaganda. As they say in the tabloids, if you want unapproved news, we can’t help you!

For that you have to turn to a newspaper that actually does value original thinking and accuracy – a newspaper where some journalist was able to ask the right questions even though the answers didn’t turn out to the nice simple bash-social-workers story of pre-approved not-news:

sources close to the case have told the Guardian there were multiple legal and social reasons why the council wanted to ensure the children be placed with foster parents who spoke their own eastern European language.

The placement with the Ukip-supporting foster couple was not intended to be long-term. It was an emergency move amid allegations that the children’s birth father had sexually abused two of his daughters and had held a knife to his wife’s head while she was holding their baby. According to the birth parents, the children were taken in a raid by police and social workers earlier this year.

There were also fears the children’s birth parents knew or might be able to find out where the foster parents lived. Though both the birth mother and father claim to continue to have supervised contact with some of their other children, it is believed social workers do not want the parents to know exactly where the children are living because of safety concerns.

The unwillingness of most news media to challenge a good newsy-narrative that fits with their preconceived ideas about how to sell a story is exactly what these papers are calling “freedom of the press”, the line that must not be crossed: the media – they tell us – must be allowed to do things like this, to make a huge story about an emergency transfer of foster children and their removal to a foster home where the foster parents can speak to them in their own language:

The children’s parents, Roma who moved to Rotherham, told the Guardian they have been in and out of family courts trying to get their children back after they returned from an earlier foster placement unable to speak their mother tongue.

Now what the rights and the wrongs are in this case I don’t know. Absolutely I think the children’s welfare should come first, and unlike your average tabloid journalist I think it’s acceptable for a social worker to make mistakes that err on the side of keeping the children safe. I always thought there was likely more to the story than we were being told.

But can you imagine how terrible it would be to have your children taken into care and returned to you having forgotten their own mother tongue because their foster parents couldn’t speak it to them?

The papers that swallowed the story uncritically, the journalists that regurgitated it with smarmy lectures about the importance of foster parents having political freedom – never mind any idea that children have a right to have the cultural heritage they were born to recognised and respected – these are the same media, often the very same journalists, arguing that they don’t need no damn press regulation, they’re upright responsible journalists and the only problem is phonehacking and they’ve learned their lesson and will do much better in future.

And if you believe that, I have this unicorn I’d like to sell you: the one that caused the car crash that killed Princess Diana. It has nice shiny UKIP ribbons in its mane.

Nigel Farage said comfortably that this good result in Rotherham meant

his party had now joined the “political mainstream”, adding: “We have established ourselves as the third force in British politics.” He said Ukip would talk to other parties about a pact if they promised a referendum on Europe – but the Tories would first have to ditch David Cameron because he had suggested Ukip was racist.

Meantime, J K Rowling says

Those who have suffered the worst, most painful and least justifiable kinds of mistreatment at the hands of the press, people who have become newsworthy because of the press’s own errors or through unspeakable private tragedy, are those least likely to be able to defend themselves or to seek proper redress.

My understanding is that Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations would give everybody, whatever their degree of celebrity or their bank balance, a quick, cheap and effective way of holding the press to account. They would also protect the press against frivolous complaints and reduce costly lawsuits. At the moment, only those of us who can afford the immensely expensive, time-consuming and stressful services of the legal system are able to take a stand against serious invasions of privacy, and even this offers little or no protection against the unjustified, insidious and often covert practices highlighted by the Leveson inquiry.

Without statutory underpinning Leveson’s recommendations will not work: we will be left with yet another voluntary system from which the press can walk away.

David Cameron’s children probably read Harry Potter. Someday, they’ll have to find out that their dad had a small chance of being Severus Snape – doomed to lose but at least doing something right – but preferred to be Lucius Malfoy. Not even the Dark Lord, but the Dark Lord’s wannabe sidekick who gives dirty socks to his house-elf.

Dobby the house elf

(Goodness, you don’t know about Harry Potter’s Sock? Important plot point, that is.)

Sign the Hacked Off petition calling on David Cameron to legislate.

Leveson proposes, Cameron disposes – with links roundup


Filed under Elections, In The Media, J. K. Rowling

2 responses to “What’s black and white and read all over?

  1. Thanks for this article. I saw this story on BBC News and thought there must be more to it than it appeared. I worked in a social work centre for a few years (though not dealing with children’s cases) and am sick of the vilification of social workers who, as you say, are in a no-win situation. Every one I met was dedicated, caring and doing their best in very difficult circumstances. It’s so difficult to find foster homes for children, the idea that social workers remove them from their birth families or foster homes for anything other than the best of intentions is risible. It’s good to see some voicing a bit of support in the face of predictable journalist outrage.

    • Yes – social workers get stick (most unfairly) from everyone. I don’t get it, except that they’re mostly unable to say anything back or justify themselves.

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