Journalism: The danger of crusades – FC Reporting Watch

5 09 2019

In the last few months, the Daily Express has been running a ‘Crusade’ (their label) with the banner ‘End This Injustice’. Under this banner they have published a number of accounts from mothers who tell of abuse at the hands of the fathers of their children, and a failure by the Family Court to protect them.

That campaign, much like the one recently launched by the Sunday Mirror (which we wrote about here) is closely associated with petitions and open letters backed by Members of Parliament, all of which seek reforms to the law to protect victims of abuse by restricting the rights of abusive parents to contact or involvement with their children. There is a wide network of campaigners, mothers and MPs whose names repeatedly crop up as supporters of each of these associated campaigns. One of the names commonly associated with these campaigns is Victoria Haigh.

These issues of domestic abuse – how family law protects the victims of it, and how family courts respond to it – are important and worthy of public debate. Such is the level of public disquiet about the issue that the Ministry of Justice is conducting a ‘spotlight’ review of the issue right now (submissions have just closed), which campaigners hope will lead to reform of law, policy and practice.

It is important though that both public debate and policy formation is balanced and evidence based.

On Tuesday, the Express published its latest piece in the crusade series. It can be seen on the twitter feed of the journalist who has been at the centre of the campaign (It is at the bottom of the page – ‘All I did was tell the truth’ – you may need to click on the embedded tweet to read it). It appears the piece was published print only, as we can’t locate it on the Express website, but it has been retweeted by a number of prominent campaigners and as such has gained a significant audience:

 

We have some significant concerns about this piece of journalism. Unlike many of the other victim accounts that the Express has published under the auspices of the ‘End this injustice’ banner, this article involves a case where there is a significant body of contextual information in the public domain which was available to the Express to mention – quite lawfully – to their readers, but which they chose to leave out. Even allowing for space constraints, we don’t think that they have presented a fair account of this example of the family court in action. In our view this impacts its accuracy.

It is critically important that the mainstream media are able to make a case that there has been a miscarriage of justice in a particular case, or that there are wider systemic failures – but we think that in making such criticisms journalists have a responsibility to do so on a factual basis, and in a way which does not mislead their readership. We don’t think the Express have achieved that here. This blog post sets out why.

The headline

‘All I did was tell the truth…then court threw me in jail’

This is a quote from Victoria Haigh, the mother of a child who the family court sent to live with her father after it concluded that the mother’s allegations against the father were untrue and the child was emotionally unsafe in her care.

Because there are no less than seven published judgments dating from 2010 to 2012 concerning this family*, we are able to consider in some detail what is really behind the shocking headline, and to analyse the account given by Ms Haigh in support of the ‘End this injustice’ crusade (and other allied campaigns) that she is very publicly supporting and driving.

Imprisonment

Firstly, Ms Haigh correctly states that she was sent to prison, but the sentence she received was nothing to do with the ‘telling the truth’ she refers to in the same breath (we’ll come to that bit in a minute). As the article itself briefly mentions, she was sent to prison for breaching a non-molestation injunction that prevented her from approaching her daughter, who was by then living in the care of the father. Ms Haigh was sentenced to 2 years and 3 months imprisonment (reduced on appeal from an original 3 years). The judgment concerning the sentence** sets out the aggravated nature of the breaches of the non-molestation order, which are significantly minimised in numerous press reports (including the Express piece) by the recycled phrase ‘a chance encounter in a petrol station’. The judgment shows:

  • there had been previous breaches resulting in a caution;
  • the petrol station meeting was found to be pre-planned and occured shortly after the terms of the order had been explained to the mother;
  • the child had been exposed to ‘horrific verbal abuse’ by her mother recounting the allegations, and ‘terrified’ during the petrol station incident,
  • and – alongside all that – the mother had applied for a replacement passport for the child in breach of an injunction.

What truth?

The ‘truth’ Ms Haigh is referring to in the headline is allegations made by her against the father of her daughter, that he had sexually abused the child. The judgments tell us that the High Court had held multiple trials to consider these allegations and had repeatedly concluded that they were without foundation. Victoria Haigh and her supporters published details of her allegations online, and circulated the parents at her daughter’s school with allegations that the father was a sexual abuser. Ms Haigh’s McKenzie friend (Elizabeth Watson) was jailed for these actions, which had amounted to a contempt of court because they breached reporting restrictions (she was later released early because she purged her contempt by apologising and doing her best to make amends). The campaigner in control of the website on which the allegations had been published via Watson was Sabine McNeill, who in January was jailed for 9 years for harassing members of the Hampstead community in connection with a campaign concerning alleged ritual satanic abuse (that the family court had also heard a trial about and considered to be fantasy – see P & Q (Children: Care Proceedings: Fact Finding) [2015] EWFC 26).

In 2011, John Hemming (then a MP) named Victoria Haigh in Parliament as the victim of an injustice, using parliamentary privilege to avoid the effect of reporting restrictions (see here for further reading). Ms Haigh was also championed by Telegraph columnist Christopher Booker in a series of pieces, focusing in particular on her flight to Ireland to give birth to her baby by a subsequent partner, to avoid the anticipated court application for removal at birth. His columns are where we first see the phrase ‘a chance encounter in a petrol station’ that persists today.

Notwithstanding that the family court has found as a fact that the allegations were untrue, and specifically vindicated the father of the child, Ms Haigh has continued to assert the truth of those allegations (and in effect to call the father of her child a paedophile). Readers are entitled to accept Ms Haigh’s account if they wish, but in fairness, they are also entitled to know that judges have repeatedly heard the evidence about these claims and concluded that they were untrue. The findings were never appealed by Ms Haigh.

We know that sometimes judges get things wrong, and that the findings in a judgment are often not accepted as truth by the person they run against. But a judge’s ‘findings of fact’ are decisions reached after hearing significantly more evidence than usually reaches the public domain, and they are an important piece of the jigsaw for anyone seriously interested in forming their own evidence-based view of a case.

The father’s ‘version’ of events

Such was the impact of Ms Haigh repeatedly disseminating information suggesting that the parent the court had deemed safe to raise his daughter was sexually abusive, that in 2012 the court took the exceptional step of proactively publishing a statement to set the record straight. This is described in the Express article as :

the court, which said that Ms Haigh had coached her child to make allegations against the father, put out a long interview with him, giving his version of the story.

However, the information published by the court was a statement of the background and facts prepared by the local authority rather than an interview with the father, and it represented the factual position as found by the court, not simply the father’s ‘version’. Moreover, the senior judge who dealt with the case said this :

Such is the extent of the false, unauthorised and tendentious material now placed in the public domain [by the mother] that the Local Authority, who would otherwise be striving to protect the privacy of X, have concluded that the balance has shifted and that in this particular case, X’s best interests is served by the true facts being made available. This position has been supported by the Children’s Guardian… It is ironic, of course, that the mother has complained about the privacy of the Family Court process and has historically argued for greater openness. Realising that the professionals in the case would be bound by their respect for X’s privacy, the mother has utilised this to promote her own distorted view of the case which she has been able to advance thus far, unopposed by the true facts.

What’s changed?

That was 2012. In 2019, Ms Haigh now has a platform through the mainstream media to continue to present the same view of the case, again ‘unopposed by the true facts’ as found by the court back in 2011. The Express cannot be ignorant of this because they refer to the 2012 judgment that contains this very quote. But they don’t give any clue to their readers that the background is more complicated than Ms Haigh’s version.

We recommend that those with any real interest in Ms Haigh’s case read this judgment in full. (We have posted links in our footnote below.)

More recent allegations

This isn’t just a rehash of the historic allegations. In July, we noticed other material about the Haigh case surfacing, at that time published in the US and linked to only by one UK blog (we aren’t linking to it for a number of legal reasons).

The Express article refers to some of the material we’ve seen elsewhere, but in somewhat more carefully worded terms. They incorporate an assertion that, in 2015, UK Athletics Association banned the father from being a sports coach, following a ‘criminal allegation of grooming a child for sexual activity’. Although elsewhere these recent allegations are expressed somewhat more loosely, the Express simply imply that the mother was right all along about the father, by juxtaposition. That is to say, they place this allegation immediately after telling the reader that the court had found that the mother had ‘coached’ the child and insinuated it was biased by publishing an ‘interview’ with the father of his ‘version’. We note that the Express use the term ‘allegation’ rather than ‘conviction’ about the father, probably because it cannot make a direct assertion without libelling the father. We notice that in the retweet by one prominent campaigner, this paragraph has been highlighted, which supports our concern about the effect on readers.

We have looked at the British Athletics Association website, and a web archive of it from 2017. They do publish disciplinary decisions about coaches on their site, but there is no record of the father being suspended in 2015 (and even if it has now been expunged from the site as expired it should have been showing in the archive version if it was published at the time which showed decisions back to 2009). He is currently showing as a coach in 2019. It seems likely therefore that, if he ever was suspended at all, that suspension was a holding measure pending investigation, and that either the allegation was not upheld or it was of such a nature that it did not warrant a permanent suspension. Material elsewhere suggests that the family court was asked to look at these issues at the time***, and evident from the article that the child remains in his care, so it seems safe to assume that their conclusion was that these allegations were either not relevant to the father’s care of the child or were simply untrue.

We are awaiting confirmation from the British Athletics Association to our enquiry about whether and when they publish or remove notifications of interim suspensions on their site, and will update as and when we receive any relevant clarification.

The Express have not named the father and we don’t think we should do so either, although many will already know exactly who he is, or will be easily able to identify him. We hope we have fairly set out what is publicly said about him so that readers can distinguish between evidence and allegation.

Authoritative comment?

In addition, we think that readers of the Express looking at the comment from a person called Vivien Hobbs (see left of article) are likely to get the impression from the description of Ms Hobbs of ‘Legal UK Partnership LLP’ as someone who ‘fought Victoria Haigh’s case’, that Ms Hobbs is a lawyer who acted for the mother in the case. Such an interpretation of her implied professional standing would be that she is a person of some knowledge and authority.

We think Ms Hobbs is probably the same Vivien Hobbs referred to as a member of the ‘First Wives Club’, a group of women who were aggrieved about family court decisions relating to their divorces from wealthy husbands several years ago, last seen last year trying to bring perjury charges against various people involved in their cases (in which they instructed their own lawyers).

We can find no record of either Ms Hobbs or the Legal UK Partnership LLP on the CILEX or Law Society websites and, based on Companies House records, the company itself was formed in mid 2017 but appears not to be trading. The company has no web presence and we cannot find it on the ICO website for data protection purposes. The news articles concerning Ms Hobbs’ own divorce and connected activism and litigation give no sense that she is a lawyer.

Neither Ms Hobbs nor her company are recorded as acting for Ms Haigh in any of the published judgments concerning her children up to 2012 (or in any other case on BAILII to date), so any role she has played is likely to relate to more recent matters and probably in a campaigning or Mckenzie-type capacity. Events since 2012 are, of course, the tip of a rather big iceberg that has been floating around since 2005. The child in the case will now be around 16 years old.

Readers may well have formed a different impression of the comments from Ms Hobbs if the Express had made them aware that she has a prior grievance of her own against the family justice system, or that she is a McKenzie friend rather than a lawyer. We do not know whether the Express chose to withhold this information, or whether they simply failed to check her status.

Some conclusions

We think it is shocking that the public are presented with such incomplete and unbalanced information by the mainstream media, who we think have a responsibility to do better on topics of genuine public importance. There is no doubt that there is much legitimate public concern and criticism of the family justice system, but such poor reporting undermines arguments for reform and does nothing to aid transparency because they obscure the complex reality behind the oversimplified narratives of some campaigners.

The article tells us that Ms Haigh has submitted her case to the Ministry of Justice review. We hope that the Ministry of Justice consider her submissions alongside the judgments we link to below.

Next steps

We have a policy to consider approaching journalists before publishing critical commentary on their work, in order to see if we can constructively work with them or suggest corrections or modifications to resolve an issue, but in this instance we think the problems are so fundamental that would serve little purpose.

If this were an online Express article, we would request corrections to it. Because it appears only to have been published in print, and is now circulating on social media, we are considering how best to redress the balance and correct the misleading impact of this piece of reporting. The Express are members of IPSO, the voluntary press regulator : we will therefore complain to the publisher (and if necessary subsequently to IPSO itself) on grounds of accuracy under Clause 1 of the IPSO Editors’ Code.

Footnotes (judgments)

*The following judgments are all freely available on BaILII :

**(Unfortunately, whilst this particular judgment is available on legal websites at R v H [2012] EWCA Crim 1738, it is not publicly accessible on the BaILII website).

***Information we’ve seen online suggests there may be a more recent judgment by a named judge, but if there is, it is not in the public domain, which hampers attempts to verify the accuracy of some information. We are not linking to the website that refers to this judgment, because we do not know what reporting restrictions may apply. Now that the child is around 16 and probably using social media, different considerations may have applied to the court’s decision about publication.

Feature pic : Tim Abbot on Flickr (Creative Commons – thanks)

This post originally appeared on the Transparency Project Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks

 


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