A just-published book, Unmasked: Andrew Norfolk, The Times Newspaper and Anti-Muslim Reporting – a Case to Answer [pdf] plays extremely serious charges against three series of articles by the paper’s chief investigative reporter. These all concern Muslims.
The first, in August 2017, alleged that Tower Hamlets council had placed a white, five-year-old Christian girl with Muslim foster carers, who had mistreated her. In the second case, in July 2018, Norfolk accused a human rights charity, Just Yorkshire, of publishing a highly negative report about the Labour MP for Rotherham, Sarah Champion, which resulted in death threats being made against her. Finally, in November of the same year, he alleged that Rotherham council had encouraged a British Pakistani to contact the son he had fathered as the result of a rape, for which he had been convicted, and to seek the legal right to visit him and to play a role in his upbringing.
Unmasked contains extremely detailed analyses and critiques of these stories, and the book’s authors, Brian Cathcart and Paddy French, argue that many of their central allegations are unfounded and that they also contain other kinds of serious inaccuracies. They conclude that:
Common threads in the reporting raise serious questions about Norfolk’s impartiality and motivation and suggest that he has, knowingly or unknowingly, breached standards of conduct and ethics that we believe responsible journalists would observe.
None of the subjects of these stories has taken legal action over them, no doubt deterred by the cost of doing so and out of fear of other unpleasant consequences of taking on the might of the Murdoch machine. Nor has Norfolk or his editor, John Witherow, threatened their numerous and vociferous critics such as Press Gang and Byline (both of which are involved in the Unmasked project) with legal action. After all, to do so would inevitably bring to far wider public attention a critique which has thus far circulated only online and break the traditional Fleet Street omertà on anything which has the temerity to question the integrity of Britain’s national newspapers.
However, a fascinating glimpse of what might happen if Norfolk’s journalism were to be subjected in court to the kind of rigorous scrutiny employed by Cathcart and French has been provided by the proceedings of an employment tribunal which is ongoing at the time of writing (although one most certainly wouldn’t have a clue about this if one was dependent for news solely on most of the national press).
In August 2017, Katherine O’Donnell, then night editor of the Scottish edition of The Times, wrote to John Witherow and to another Times executive to complain about what she regarded as the paper’s intolerant reporting on trans people and about its damaging impact on her wellbeing. (Such reporting has been the subject of analysis here, here and here). Subsequently, she claimed, she was overlooked for promotion and discriminated against because she is a trans woman. She was made redundant in January 2018 and then sued News UK, the publishers of The Times, for unfair dismissal and discrimination on the grounds of her gender reassignment. She accused colleagues of showing discriminatory attitudes towards her and towards trans people in general, and also singled out a large number of news and comment articles which she regarded as being critical of or hostile to trans people. Her case is backed by a number of ex-Times newsdesk and production staff. An employment tribunal began hearing her case in Edinburgh in May 2019.
The Times has put very considerable resources into fighting this case, and Witherow appeared before the tribunal on 17 May, exhibiting a remarkable display of denial which rivalled that of the amnesiac Rupert Murdoch before the Culture, Media and Sport select committee in 2011 and the Leveson Inquiry the following year.
There is nothing which journalists such as Witherow dislike more than being criticised, questioned about their working methods and held publicly to account. (In this respect it’s worth remembering that when Clare Balding complained successfully to IPSO about being called a ‘dyke on a bike’ by A.A. Gill in The Sunday Times, Witherow told her in writing that: ‘In my view some members of the gay community need to stop regarding themselves as having a special victim status and behave like any other sensible group that is accepted by society’). This is why, on those all-too-rare occasions when those they have wronged do manage to launch a legal action, and look as if they may win, papers are highly likely to settle out of court (and to attach gagging clauses to the settlement). But cases which run their full course, and in which plaintiffs refuse to be silenced, are extremely revealing of nefarious but clearly quite routine national newspaper practices: for example, the largely unreported phone-hacking case Gulati and others v MGN Ltd (2015), and Max Mosley’s action against the News of the World in 2008, which saw the paper desperately dreaming up ever more threadbare and ludicrous ‘public interest’ defences to put before a distinctly unimpressed court. Needless to say, the judge’s stinging criticism of these and other antics on the part of the NoW went largely unreported.
Clearly irked at having to appear before the tribunal, Witherow seems to have done his best to try to make it appear as if O’Donnell’s barrister, Robin White, was a silly woman who just didn’t understand how journalism worked. However, what emerged under her admirably rigorous questioning was an all too clear picture of editorial standards at The Times, one which surely goes some way to explaining both why Norfolk’s articles were thought fit for publication in the first place and why the paper has resolutely refused to acknowledge their manifest shortcomings. Thus Witherow, who admitted that he did not know the differences between the Equalities Act and gender discrimination legislation, blithely stated that ‘the paper produces so much copy that to highlight a few [sic] articles can be misleading about what we do’, adding that ‘we write 150,000 words a day, some are bound to be inaccurate’ and ‘it’s just not possible to stay on top of everything’. Asked to comment on the specific claims made in various articles, he came up with replies such as ‘I don’t know if it’s right or wrong’ and ‘I don’t know the detail’. However, he also stated that ‘if it was wrong, we would have corrected it’ and ‘we do believe in accuracy and correct things that are wrong’, statements which are flatly contradicted by the behaviour of The Times in the Norfolk stories which are the subject of Unmasked. He also defended various articles on the grounds that they were either quoting others’ opinions or represented the opinions of Times columnists, who are ‘free to pursue their own lines’. This, of course, is the archetypal excuse which is routinely trotted out (and sanctified by IPSO) every time that a newspaper finds itself accused of bias of one kind or another. However, it simply will not wash, as, in order to have the slightest journalistic validity, opinions must be based on verifiable and generally agreed facts, not on rumour, gossip or hearsay – that way lies ‘fake news’. One of the columnists cited by White was Janice Turner, whose many negative articles about trans people (sample headlines: ‘Children Sacrificed to Appease Trans Lobby’ and ‘Trans Ideologists Are Spreading Cod Science’) have caused widespread fury in LGBT circles. Given that she is not simply one of the paper’s leading columnists, but a particularly notorious one, who has also come under fire for her comments about Muslims and Islam, Witherow’s claim that ‘I don’t know anything about her’ simply beggars belief.
Inevitably the case has received very little mainstream press coverage, but it can be read about here and here. It may seem a long way from articles about Muslims to articles about trans people, but both reveal the same things about the state of journalism at The Times, and, by extension, across much of the mainstream national press: the routine demonising of minority groups, with little apparent concern for the consequences; a cavalier attitude towards accuracy and truthfulness – particularly important journalistic qualities when the subjects in question are as sensitive and controversial as these; and an arrogant and dismissive stance towards any form of criticism, entailing a concomitant refusal to acknowledge any sense of journalistic accountability or responsibility. A case to answer, indeed.