Snooping round our door

Picture of Martin Narey, a clean-shaven middle-aged white man with greying hair wearing a white shirt and a blue and silver striped tie.Earlier today I heard an interview with Sir Martin Narey, a former director-general of the prisons service and later chief executive of the Natoinal Offender Management Service, then CEO of Barnardo’s and more recently an advisor to Michael Gove on children’s social care when he was Secretary of State for education, on Radio 5 Live in which he spelled out what was wrong with the Times’s Tower Hamlets foster care story last Monday. When the presenter, Adrian Chiles, asked him if Andrew Norfolk, the ‘investigator’ who uncovered the ‘scandal’, or the Times’s motive for publishing it was racist, he said absolutely not and praised Andrew Norfolk for his previous ‘brave’ reporting on the Rochdale grooming affair. (The interview is near the beginning of the show.) Also last night, I saw a series of tweets from Murad Ahmed, a Muslim journalist who used to work at the Times and now works for the Financial Times on “sport, hotels, sport, gambling, other fun stuff” and previously about technology (the tweets start here). He also cannot accept that there is any Islamophobia at the paper; he says it’s a “great paper” and that the author was a “fantastic journalist”, that his Rochdale story was “high class”.

If the motive in researching and publishing the story was not racism, what was it? I can think of one other possible motive, as I cannot imagine that a paper with access to the Times’s lawyers would do something this stupid by mistake. In the early 2000s a series of miscarriages of justice unravelled in which several mothers had been imprisoned for killing their babies who had in fact died of natural causes. The ‘science’ that sealed their fates came from Roy Meadow, a paediatrician knighted for previously uncovering so-called Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (now known as Factitious or Induced Illness), a phenomenon in which parents harm their babies or seek unnecessary medical treatment for them in order to get attention for themselves. In one case, he secretly recorded a woman who submitted a urine sample from her baby which contained blood; it turned out that she was contaminating the samples with her own menstrual blood. In the first situation he was right, and his achievements justly celebrated; in the second, he was very dramatically wrong in both the conclusion and the science that led to it, and it resulted in years of unnecessary suffering, at least two broken marriages, and ultimately the death of one of the women.

Like Roy Meadow, Andrew Norfolk gained recognition for identifying wrongdoing among one section of the population — mothers, in Meadow’s case; Asian or Muslim men, in Norfolk’s. Both were right the first time and wrong the second time. It seems they both decided to mine the same seam again, looking for wrongdoing among the same group of people which had yielded results the first time round, and when they encountered what looked like ‘evidence’ of it, they could not conceive of it being anything else. Narey also called Norfolk “brave” for the Rochdale grooming investigation, which I really must question. Did he need to wear a flak jacket when going into that part of Rochdale? Reporting from a war, where there is very real risk to one’s own life (or the risk of kidnap) might be called brave; the likelihood of being called racist doesn’t really match up to that. Writing a story which incriminates a minority already held under widespread suspicion really is not, especially when writing for a paper with a long history of antagonism towards that minority. (The same paper and its parent company also has a history of antagonism to Labour councils, manifesting in spurious stories about “schools/childminders having to make white children wear saris” and other such things in “loony left” Labour council areas. So, this story ticked both those boxes.)

And for those of us affected by the stream of propaganda papers like the Times puts out, whether their intention was racist really is of secondary importance; what matters is its impact. I’m not talking about the occasional ignorant or off-colour remark here; I’m talking about a stream of articles in several newspapers over the course of several years which draws hostile attention to behaviours which are not harmful but simply different, and paints them as offensive or threatening, giving out the message that Muslims really have no place in public life and really should not be visible in public. Then when one of the papers involved make a front-page story out of a lady offering foster care who had some rules in her own house, we’re expected to believe it’s just a momentary lapse? Really?

You tell me he’s high class … well, I can see through that.

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