Telegraph reporting of family case was “unbalanced, inaccurate and just plain wrong” – Adam Wagner

10 05 2011

Re: L (A Child: Media Reporting) [2011] EWHC B8 (Fam) (18 April 2011).  The thought of being personally criticised in a reported judgment would make most lawyers break into a cold sweat. Some journalists wear such treatment as a badge of honour. But surely it is professionally embarrassing for a High Court Judge to label an article as “unbalanced, inaccurate and just plain wrong“. That was the treatment handed out by His Honour Judge Bellamy to the Telegraph’s Christopher Booker in a recent ruling.

The facts of the case are sad and I will not repeat them in any detail. HHJ Bellamy was asked to make a factual ruling relating to the alleged mistreatment of a baby by its family. He found that the mother was responsible for breaking the baby’s arm, an injury which led to the council forcibly removing the child from its parents’ care, as well as bruising to his hand and cheek. The judge did question, however, why it was necessary for the police to march the parents through a hospital wearing handcuffs.

At paragraph 185 of the detailed judgment, the judge addressed media reporting of the case, under the heading “transparency”. He criticised in particular two articles by Booker, who had not attended any of the hearings:

Mr Booker’s articles contain significant factual errors and omissions. In the first article Mr Booker gives the impression that it was ‘faint bruising’ which prompted the parents to take L to hospital and which gave rise to what he clearly regards as the over-zealous and unjustified actions of social workers

However, despite Booker’s account, which it turned out was based only on information provided by the mother, the injury was far more serious than “faint bruising”:

As he will come to understand when he reads this judgment, it was in fact L’s floppy arm which prompted his parents to take him to hospital. That floppy arm was the result of a spiral fracture of his left humerus. X-rays showed that he also had six metaphyseal fractures.

All of this underlines, said the judge “the dangers inherent in journalists relying on partisan and invariably tendentious reporting by family members and their supporters rather than being present in court to hear the evidence which the court itself hears.” Ultimately, the judge saw the mother’s own factual misrepresentation to Booker as evidence that she had been trying to hide from the truth that she had harmed her child. And he failed to question her account.

HHJ Bellamy went on to make more general points about reporting of family cases. Whilst “no-one doubts the importance of a free press” and its right “to criticise and highlight shortcomings in the family justice system“, nontheless, “we should not lose sight of the fact that journalistic freedom brings with it responsibility, not least the responsibility to ensure fair, balanced and accurate reporting”.

Quite right too. Fair, balanced and accurate reporting is lost when a journalist is so committed to an ideological perspective – in this case, exposing the endemic corruption of the family courts – that they skew the facts of a complex case to fit that viewpoint.

HHJ Bellamy is not the first to criticise Booker’s approach. Family barrister and blogger Lucy Reed also recently took Booker to task for his campaign against the family law system, which she says is making the jobs of family practitioners harder. She said:

Booker complains of the wall of secrecy, but the awful irony is that he and others like him depend upon it to whip up their fevered support… This sort of stuff is damaging public confidence in the justice system… and it is parents who have read this kind of story that are least able to engage with their solicitors and survive the hard hard process that is the care system

And Bellamy is not the first judge to criticise the Telegraph either. In a recent speech, the head of the court of appeal Lord Neuberger lamented the Telegraph’s reporting of the Learco Chindamo (Philip Lawrence’s killer) deportation case. The Telegraph reported that the Human Rights Act was to blame for the state’s inability to deport him, whereas in fact it was only peripheral to the decision, which was premised on EC freedom of movement law. Neuberger concluded:

Persuasion should be based on truth rather than propaganda. It is one thing to disagree with a judgment, to disagree with a law and to campaign to change the law, but it is another thing to misstate what was said in a judgment, or to misstate the law.

In a similar vein, I recently highlighted Telegraph blogger Cristina Odone’s mischievous misrepresentation of a Christian fostering case, and the unbalanced reporting of a case involving the attempted deportation of a man involved with killing the son of an ex-Gurkha soldier.

The merging of factual reporting with opinion is particularly damaging when reporting the law. Complex rulings are difficult enough to summarise when just sticking to the facts. Adding another slant to the multiplicity of opinions which are already sewn into the fabric of a legal judgment is dangerous and unnecessary.

Booker’s pieces are, on the face of it, opinion but they do contain factual statements which, as a judge has now judged, were unbalanced and inaccurate. The judge’s criticisms are not even about mistakes of law – sometimes understandable given it’s complexity – but rather about failing to report both sides of a story.

Not all of the Telegraph’s legal reporting is poor, but it does sometimes stray into the territory of propaganda. The problem is that, like the Daily Mail, The Sun and The Express, editorial policies on legal issues such as the human rights act often leak through into articles which are presented as factual reporting.

It is perhaps a mark of the respect people hold for The Telegraph that they are often surprised when its journalists misreport the law. If more judges take the approach of HHJ Bellamy, that respect will not last long. That should make any newspaper editor break into a cold sweat.

Hat-tip to Family Lore for highlighting this judgment. If you are interested in media reporting and the law, come to the #lawblogs event on Thursday 19 May.

This post originally appeared on the UK Human Rights Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks.


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