The headline was ‘Jailed rapist given chance to see his victim’s child’ and the sub-heading was ‘Council investigated over “perverse” decision’. Then came these opening sentences: ‘A council invited a jailed sex offender to play a part in the future of the child of a woman he raped, The Times has learnt. The rapist, who was part of a grooming gang, had no parental responsibility for his son but the local authority contacted him in jail and gave him a chance to seek visits from the boy.’
Legal problems with this story have been explored here by specialist family lawyer Lucy Reed of the Transparency Project. Let’s look now at some journalistic problems.
The wrong story
A fundamental part of the job of journalism is to identify what the story is. You look at the facts in the round and you work out what is new, what is important and what it is that you should alert your readers to. In this case, as has become clear since publication, Norfolk grasped the wrong end of the stick.
His opening paragraphs amounted to an assault on the reputation and the moral standards of Rotherham council, but we now know (and he should have found this out before publication) that what he described could probably have happened anywhere. The real story was that family court rules require all councils to notify fathers about care proceedings, even when the fathers are rapists – so what needs to be discussed is whether and how those rules should be changed.
Norfolk, as the reporter researching the story, should have mastered the information and understood this, but he didn’t. It might be claimed in his defence that, however clumsy his approach, he highlighted an issue that needed to be debated, but that is just not good enough. A conscientious journalist would have got this right and he had plenty of time to do so.
Failure to provide evidence
Reporters are not authorities; when they make a claim they must provide evidence in the form of quotations to satisfy their readers that what they say is correct. Norfolk failed to do that.
His central assertion was that Rotherham council decided to (a) ‘invite’ the father to play a part in the child’s future and (b) ‘give him the chance’ of contact with the child. He also wrote in his fifth paragraph that the father was ‘encouraged‘ by the council to ‘stake a claim‘ in the child’s future. Unequivocally, then – he chose these words when he could have used others – Norfolk was accusing Rotherham, not just of notifying the father of legal proceedings, but of making an active, positive attempt to induce him to engage.
Times readers were entitled to expect substantive quotations backing up this serious allegation – ideally direct quotations from the council’s correspondence with the father, and failing that quotations from someone credible who was known to have seen it.
Not only did Norfolk fail to provide these, but in his 13th paragraph he described the correspondence thus: ‘The local authority told him [the father] in prison of his rights and promised to keep him informed of all future proceedings.’ That sounds like what the council was legally obliged to do and it does not sound the same as encouraging, inviting and giving chances.
There were quotations in the article from the child’s mother and from the MP Louise Haigh, but though both expressed outrage they did not offer the evidence Norfolk should have provided, or even say they had seen the correspondence.
Burying the context
Journalists are free to write (and would not be wrong in doing so) that the Earth is in danger from asteroid strikes, but obviously they would not be responsible journalists if they did not indicate prominently that there was no reason to expect such an event imminently. Context and perspective matter, in other words.
Norfolk wrote in his first paragraph that the father was ‘given a chance to seek visits from the boy’, but even if that was literally true (and as explained above we have not seen the evidence) it does not mean there was ever a serious likelihood it would happen. In fact, as Lucy Reed explains, such visits would almost certainly have been ruled out by the family courts. Norfolk had an obligation to his readers to provide this important context high up in his story. He did not.
Even more significantly, since these events took place a year ago we actually know what happened, which was nothing at all. The father did not make any application to participate in the proceedings, let alone to have contact with the child. Norfolk reserved this information for his 14th paragraph.
Misuse of quotation
All the handbooks and instruction manuals in journalism are in agreement on the sacrosanct nature of quotations. Never tinker with the words people use when they speak to you; always quote as accurately and faithfully as you can.
Norfolk relied heavily on the idea of a perverse decision by the council. The sub-heading was: ‘Council investigated over “perverse” decision.’ And the fourth sentence declared: ‘Campaigners said that the “perverse” decision amounted to an offer to “retraumatise” his victim.’
Where did Norfolk get this? Read down to the eighth paragraph and you find:
‘Baroness Newlove, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, described it as “a perverse situation”, saying: “This appears to be a case in which a victim of the worst sexual violence faced the prospect of continuing to be abused by her perpetrator, this time via the family courts.”’
The Baroness spoke of a perverse situation and not a perverse decision. She was clearly referring – and I confirmed this with her office – to the ‘situation’ of the victim of sexual violence, and she did not accuse Rotherham council of taking any action or decision that was perverse. No one else is quoted in the article as using the word ‘perverse’, let alone the two words ‘perverse decision’.
So Norfolk detached an adjective from one noun in a quotation and re-attached it to another noun of his own choice, while keeping the adjective in inverted commas as if it were still a quotation. By such means anyone could be made to appear to say almost anything (and pink flowers could magically become pink elephants).
There is more, but we have the measure of Norfolk’s standards. He presented an alarming story, but the wrong story, and he did so without applying the care or the spadework to justify that alarm. Instead he beefed up his personal take on these events by the misuse of quotation and obscured its weaknesses by burying vital information. It is another case study in bad journalism.
This is not to say that there was no story or that there was no cause for alarm. Few would disagree with Baroness Newlove that the child’s mother was presented with a dreadful prospect and that such matters should be handled differently. Again it is worth reading the observations of Lucy Reed who as a lawyer has had to deal with such situations.
Norfolk botched this, and it is not his first botched job. The question now is why his employer, the Times newspaper, tolerates this. Editors and sub-editors are supposed to read and check reports before they go out, challenging reporters when they see holes and inconsistencies, and editors are also supposed to listen to and evaluate criticism of what they publish.
Yet the Times appears happy to enable Norfolk to provoke controversy while playing fast and loose with standards. This is not the mindset of journalism, let alone of ‘high quality journalism’. It is the mindset of Breitbart.
This post originally appeared on Byline.com and is reproduced with permission and thank