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There has recently been a scandal in the UK regarding a child from a Christian background being fostered by Muslim foster carers. This has produced quite a lot of media attention due to the fact that the foster carers supposedly encouraged the five-year-old girl to speak Arabic and banned her from eating bacon, as well as taking her crucifix off her.

The story first appeared in the Times newspaper and was quickly picked up by the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, both of whom have particular anti-Muslim agendas.

Here is how the Daily Mail reported it:

Muslim foster carers ‘told Christian girl, five, that Christmas and Easter are stupid and European women are alcoholics after taking away her crucifix and stopping her from eating bacon’

  • Girl was distressed after move by Tower Hamlets borough council, report claims
  • White girl was encouraged to learn Arabic and was barred from eating carbonara
  • She spent six months in foster care in two Muslim households, it is claimed
  • Young girl was very distressed and would cry saying: ‘They don’t speak English’

A white five-year-old girl told her mother Christmas and Easter are ‘stupid’ and European women are alcoholics after being fostered to two Muslim families, it was claimed today.

The child, who is a native English speaker, also refused to take back her favourite meal – spaghetti carbonara – because it contained bacon – which Muslims do not eat.

The child, who is a native English speaker, spent the past six months in two Muslim households after being placed into foster care in Tower Hamlets, east London.

She was forced to live in Muslim foster homes where nobody spoke English and her carers took away her Christian cross and encouraged her to learn Arabic, according to The Times.

Local authority reports describe how the little girl sobbed and begged not to be returned to her niqab-wearing carer’s home, telling a social worker: ‘They don’t speak English.’

The reports detail how the child was ‘very distressed’ and claimed the foster carer had removed her Christian cross and encouraged her to learn Arabic.

The two placements were made by the scandal-hit Tower Hamlets borough council against the wishes of the girl’s family. [continue reading]

Let’s see how this journalism falls short of simple quality standards and analyse some of the problems therein.

Journalistic Reliability

Although the Mail, here, relied largely on the Times report, initially, it is worth noting that the Mail (and Express) have very low media integrity and reliability ratings. In other words, when you see a Mail article making huge claims, check those “facts”. As Humantruth points out of the Daily Mail in “Which are the Best and Worst Newspapers in the UK?“::

Staunchly right-wing10. Populist, rabidly conservative, anti-Europe, anti-immigration, anti-taxation, anti-abortion, anti-permissive, concocted moral outrages11. Alastair Campbell said: “It’s very hard to see how we can be happy as a nation when every day two million people buy the Daily Mail12.

1,214 PCC complaints against it (top of the league by a long way,  and its Sunday counterpart is 5th in the list) [2013]6.

Three times more successful PCC complaints against it than any other paper [2008]7.

Sensationalism, lack of depth.

“Alarmist headlines”, providing “daily hate” according to former owner Lord Northcliffe. “More than any other newspaper in Britain, it deals in falsehood and distortion”10.

The council have attacked the “errors” in the reporting, as the Guardian points out:

The Times had published an article on Monday after seeing confidential local authority reports, in which a social services supervisor describes the child sobbing and begging not to be returned to one foster carer because “they don’t speak English”.

The reports state that the supervisor heard the girl, who at times was “very distressed”, claiming that the foster carer removed her necklace with a crucifix on it. The paper reported that she was a “white Christian child” who had been placed with two Muslim households in London over the past six months.

A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets council said: “While we cannot go into details of a case that would identify a child in foster care, there are inaccuracies in the reporting of it. For example, the child is in fact fostered by an English-speaking family of mixed race in this temporary placement. We would like to give more details but we are legally restricted to do so.”

They added: “We have always been working towards the child being looked after by a family member and we continue to do so.”

What is pretty galling in the above article is what it has to say about the Mail, but this should really be unsurprising:

It also emerged the Daily Mail and Mail Online paired an altered image with the story after following up the Times report. The original image of a couple in Islamic dress with a child was originally captioned “happiness couple in Dubai park” but was amended to cover the woman’s face with a veil.

The stock picture was supplied by Getty Images. Getty confirmed the original image did not show a woman in a veil but added it was a creative royalty-free picture, meaning that alterations to the original were permitted.

The Mail altered the image to mask the woman’s face and ran it in both the print and online editions. The online version was later altered to pixelate the woman’s face. The publisher of the paper and website has been approached for comment.

Indeed, the papers could be facing an investigation for their reporting:

The two papers could face an investigation into their reporting of the story by Ipso, the newspaper regulator, after complaints were made about their coverage. The Times has attracted 10 complaints regarding its articles and the Mail has generated six.

The complaints mean Ipso must now consider if there has been a potential breach of its code and there are grounds to launch an investigation. The complaints have mostly been made under clauses one, two, and six of the editors’ code of practice. These relate to accuracy, privacy, and reporting on children.

The assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Miqdaad Versi, who has secured dozens of national press corrections over reporting about Islam and Muslims, said: “The welfare of the child should not be instrumentalised by media outlets to promote a hypocritical anti-Muslim culture war that demonises Muslim parents who are willing to foster young children, most of whom are coming from abusive relationships.

“Where has the outrage been about the large number of Muslim children housed with non-Muslim households? Why would teaching Arabic to a young child be any more sinister than teaching another language?

“This story sensationalises real challenges facing social services such as the dire lack of foster parents available, who endure a rigorous vetting process, and the difficulties of accommodating the cultural and religious needs of young children which are vitally important.

“These are questions that have few easy answers but we fully agree that the religious and cultural needs of the child must be considered when placing a child into care.

“One can only hope that the way this was reported does not serve to reduce the number of Muslims willing to foster children which would mean more young children would remain at risk.”

Early reports suggested that the girl in question is now in the care of her non-practising Muslim grandmother (though the Guardian seems to have altered the reporting here, perhaps not to sensationalise the religiosity of those involved). However, in breaking news, the Telegraph have run this article: “Mother of ‘Christian’ child in Islamic foster row was from Muslim family, court papers show“. If this is true, then the original story is completely thrown up in the air:

The mother of the five-year-old ‘Christian’ girl who complained her daughter had been placed with Muslim foster carers was herself born into the Islamic faith.

Court documents released on Wednesday show the girl’s maternal grandparents “are of a Muslim background but are non practising”….

The court papers show the girl was placed with foster carers who were “not culturally matched” because of the urgent need to find a safe home for her….

The mother first complained about the foster placement some months ago but a court hearing in June heard that an independent court-appointed guardian had visited the carers and found the child “is settled and well cared for by the foster carer”.

 The local authority then went back to court in August to apply for the child to be placed with her grandmother in the “long term”.

The mother, according to the court order, opposed the council’s plan. According to the court documents “the child’s biological father has not been located”.

What can we learn from this? You have to be deep-seated in your ideological bent to take anything the Daily Mail (and arguably Tims, here) says at face value. Learn to fact check, readers.

A Child’s Religion

While I completely agree that this kind of fostering arrangement is pretty terrible, assuming the facts are correct (!), there are a number of points to raise here. This is a text I wrote to BBC 5Live Radio, which was read out in a debate concerning this with a local conservative MP and a fostering guru:

It isn’t the wishes, religion or background of the child that is being considered, but the religion or worries of the birth parents. 5-year-olds aren’t born with a religion.

So that’s the first point here, concerning whether children can even have a religion. It’s like saying a child is a Conservative or a Labour child. Children are too young to make such decisions. So to get up in arms about a child having a cross taken away from them is pretty much as bad as making a child wear a cross in the first place. What is a 5-year-old child to know about vicarious sacrifice and atonement? What did they know about the identity politics of seeing themselves or being seen as a Christian?

Forcing any such worldview on a child is arguably child abuse as it is.

Is This Representative? And Equality of Concern…

Now my next point concerns when foster parents are Christian and have overtly persuaded the child in their care towards a Christian worldview. Have the Daily Mail (reader) or the Daily Express got up in arms about when this happens? Do they know how often this happens? Has that happened more or less than Muslim foster parents doing what they have done? Because this looks potentially very much like cherry picking events. It is counting your hits, but ignoring your misses. This is not to take away from the danger of these particular Muslim foster parents doing what they did, but people must see things in context, as was mentioned in one of the quotes above.

Here is a case of when a Christian carer converted a Muslim child in their care, was struck off, and then the decision was reversed. This article is from the Daily Mail as well, but the differences are stark. The language shows the paper siding hugely with the Christian foster carer, as the original decision was “quashed”, and it details her torrid life after originally losing the case, generating sympathy for the Christian victim. Once very interesting difference is this:

The carer, a devout Christian in her 50s, was asked to look after the Muslim teenager after the girl was threatened with an arranged marriage and faced violence from her family.

So here the Mail explains why the Muslim girl went into care: arranged marriage and violence from her (Muslim) family. But in the latest piece we are talking about, the Mail neglects to report why the (Christian) girl was taken into care in the first place. Now, admittedly, they should not be privy to this information at this point, but there is still a notion that this “Christian” girl has been really hard done-by on account of this Muslim foster family, without the admission that she was taken into care in the first place meaning her “Christian” parent(s) had been completely failing her in some fundamental way. The abuse or neglect that she suffered at the hands of “Christian” parent(s) might and probably would be much worse than that (at the hands of the carers) reported in these articles.

In other words, when Muslims do bad, the Mail will shout from the rooftops; but when Christians do bad, there is an eery silence.

Here is a list of Christian ritualised abuse in care throughout the 80s and 90s.

Here is the Express utterly misreporting a decision barring Christian carers from operating because they “refused to promote homosexuality: “Barred, the Christian foster parents who refused to tell boys: It’s great being gay“.

Vincent Matherick, 65, and wife Pauline, 61, have also had their 11-year-old foster son removed from their care after their failure to sign a contract enforcing sexual equality.

They say social services told them they must tell children it is “good” to be homosexual. They must also take them to gay  meetings if they were curious about same-sex relationships.

The Mathericks’ “crime” was to refuse to sign, on principle, an agreement implementing new laws which promote sexual equality.

The article is a litany of inaccurate and terrible journalism designed to favour Christians over and above non-Christians because that is the agenda of such papers. I could trawl the internet for more cases, but you get my point.

The fact that there are Christian foster charity organisations fails to raise an eyebrow, even though the agenda for such organisations will (at least in some small part) be about spreading the word and evangelising (implicitly or explicitly). This again reflects a bias.

I posit that any such equivalent story involving Christian foster carers would struggle to become so newsworthy and thus we hardly hear of them, especially in previous decades when the religion was more of the default setting for the UK. Now that Christianity is in decline, we should hear more about them. However, when the news outlets are often so pro-Christian, there is a problem in hearing about anything that paints Christianity in such a negative light (by association).

Now I’m no fan of Islam since I do a talk on Islam, criticising it from a theological point of view. However, I also recognise that both the Daily Mail and the Daily Express have a clear anti-Muslim agenda, so that they will celebrate every time a Muslim does something wrong, but ignore every time a Christian does something wrong. This then demonises Muslims, more likely sending them to a more extreme belief (through otherisation) to the point where the papers further demonise them, saying “I told you so!” It’s potentially a terribly vicious circle.

I am not giving Muslims a free pass – anyone who knows my writing well enough will know this – but I am also not giving the Daily Mail and their ilk a free pass to demonise Muslims (not Islam) on account of some very basic in-group / out-group psychology and a predilection for otherising outsiders.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...