Judge: Telegraph reporting of family case was “unbalanced, inaccurate and just plain wrong”

L (A Child: Media Reporting), Re [2011] EWHC B8 (Fam) (18 April 2011) – Read judgment

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

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14 thoughts on “Judge: Telegraph reporting of family case was “unbalanced, inaccurate and just plain wrong”

  1. It is perhaps a mark of the respect people hold for The Telegraph that they are often surprised when its journalists misreport the law.

    Really?

    I expect all British newspapers, with the honourable exception of the Financial Times, to misreport anything and anything with abandon.

  2. Pingback: Booker Booby Prize | Pink Tape

  3. Face book and the underground press take a similar but opposite view to the learned Judge they believe that the Secret Family Courts rely too heavily on the evidence of Social Services and the Police and do not take into account the facts presented by the actual parents.

    Chris Booker has become an unlikely hero to people who have lost their children to the State because he has been the one journalist to take up the thorny issue of forced adoption

    I have myself been involved in Maureen Spalek’s case . Maureen was arrested under the anti terrorist law by 5 police officers for the grave crime of “sending her son a Birthday Card”. I know this to be true because I was in the Court in Warrington when this was discussed. Maureen has never been accused of harming her children in any way but following her divorce the children were removed and forcibly adopted by a Social Worker, who worked for the same Social Services who had removed them, in case they suffered future “emotional harm”

    The learned judge did make acknowledgment to the right of the press to “to criticise and highlight shortcomings in the family justice system“ and it may have been better had he praised Mr Booker for his part in this whilst also castigating him for the error of relying too heavily on the families view of events in this other case, which from what I read Mr Booker seems to have misjudged.

    Whilst the learned Judge makes a point any lawyer can concur with, this will be lost of the people he may want to most influence. They believe the Courts , the Police and the Social Services are involved in a conspiracy to steal their children in a money making game, because adoptive parents are paid £400 a week for each child they adopt , and children like Maureen Spalek’s are adopted by Social Workers and a small , but sad minority have been adopted by paedophiles.

    Perhaps it is time the Press and the public were given full access to the Secret Family Courts allowing the public to judge if Justice is being done or if the Courts rely too heavily on the evidence of Social Services and the Police whilst giving less weight to the testimony and facts presented by the actual parents.

  4. That Mr Booker has a “thing” about the family justice system is well summed up in another Telegraph recent headline:

    “The family justice system is callous, corrupt and staggeringly expensive.”

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/christopherbooker/8423799/The-family-justice-system-is-callous-corrupt-and-staggeringly-expensive.html

    One of the very noticeable things about a lot of media reporting on court proceedings is that few of the reporters these days have any legal training. (Of course, there are some very notable exceptions).

    I think that there is a need for something to be done to explain court decisions better. The Supreme Court has made an excellent start in this direction with the publication of media releases explaining the essentials of cases. This needs to be replicated by the Court of Appeal and High Court.

    Also, I think that there is a need to address the length of some judgments. Is a 213 paragraph judgment really necessary for a first instance decision?

    There will be some sympathy with Judge Bellamy’s views about handcuffing (at paras 182-184). It is becoming much more commonplace.

  5. ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant’, said US Supreme Court Justice Brandeis.
    Greater openness in the Family Courts would hold judges to far greater account. It seems quite obvious why the judiciary resists such accountability!
    HHJ Bellamy criticises “factual errors and omissions” by the media.
    Is his Honour also concerned with factual errors and omissions by the judiciary?
    In my own case, Re D (Children) [2010] EWCA Civ 50, Sir Nicholas Wall omitted reference to the “ascertainable wishes of the children”.
    Sir Nicholas also omitted reference to the plethora of scientific child welfare evidence exhiibited (appearing in the Custody Minefield Relocation Reports).
    Sir Nicholas also omitted to deal with the detailed arguments against Payne v Payne which were presented to him (appearing in the link below).
    HHJ Bellamy might like to question his boss, Sir Nicholas Wall, why it seems acceptable for judges to make ‘omissions’, but not so for the media.
    http://www.equalparentingalliance.org/2011/04/leave-to-remove-an-open-letter-from-father-of-re-d.html
    Mr BD

  6. Judge Bellamy has made such a hash of this case that I wonder how he ever passed law school let alone became a judge !The only FACTUAL criticism he makes of the “Booker Article” is that judge Bellamy claims that Booker wrote that the mother was alerted to the need to take their son to the doctor because of slight bruising when in true fact it was a floppy arm.
    Well in the Telegraph Mr Booker did write exactly that !! The judge took his information not from the Telegraph but from my website http://www.forced-adoption.com on which was printed a draft the day BEFORE the paper was printed and that was afterwards corrected !I

  7. I am immensely flattered that judge Bellamy chose to rely on my website for evidence on which to base his judgement,but after all it was only a draft and I seriously advise him next time to actually read the Telegraph before criticising its journalists !
    What judge Bellamy has omitted is the fact that the police arrested the FATHER as perpetrator of the injuries and he is still on bail !The police dropped all charges against the mother who has been declared guilty by an old misogynist who has completely disregarded all evidence except that of various doctors who were obviously absent when the injuries were inflicted if indeed they were non accidental as claimed!He omitted to say that the UK social services were distrustful of the Irish authoritie’s ability to deal with an Irish baby with an Irish mother,an Irish grandmother and a huge Irish extended family that welcomed mother and child when they fled to Dublin.They therefore at huge cost to the taxpayers pursued two cases in Ireland to take the baby back to the UK to stay with foster parents also at enormous taxpayers expense !

    Extract from “The Times” April 13th 2010 !

    “Lord Justice Wall (The Senior family court judge) said that the determination of some social workers to place children in an “unsatisfactory care system” away from their families was “quite shocking”.In a separate case on which Sir Nicholas Wall also sat, Lord Justice Aikens described the actions of social workers in Devon as “more like Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China than the West of England” !

    Who am I to contradict such eminent authorities??

  8. More contributions from the tinfoil hat, red socks and green ink brigade………… Nurse – fetch the screens, please!

  9. An open letter to Mr Christopher Booker:

    Thank you for your recent article entitled “A judge attacks my
    ‘one-sided’ child-protection stories…”

    Judge Bellamy – supported by Sir Nicholas Wall – was quick to
    criticise The Telegraph over alleged “omissions” in its reporting.
    However, does the learned judge have any similar criticism to levy at
    “omissions” made by the judiciary itself?

    Many people who have gone through the Family Court System will have
    had experience of judges blatantly “omitting” important and relevant
    facts and arguments from their judgments, with the consequence that,
    from a reading of the judgment alone, it appears completely rational
    and fair. However, if one were to have access to ALL the arguments
    and facts in a case – the ‘full story’, as it were – the judgment may
    not appear as erudite, well-balanced and just.

    In the case of Re D (Children) [2010] EWCA Civ 50, for example,
    powerful arguments against current Relocation law – as well as
    extensive and irrefragable contemporary scientific evidence and
    research – appear to have been completely ignored by Sir Nicholas
    Wall. All mention of these bona fide arguments and scientific
    evidence is “omitted” from Wall’s judgment.

    See http://www.equalparentingalliance.org/2011/04/leave-to-remove-an-open-letter-from-father-of-re-d.html
    and http://www.thecustodyminefield.com/Factsheets/Submission-Challenge-Payne.pdf

    I wonder what HHJ Bellamy would make of Wall’s “omissions”? I rather
    suspect that he would be extremely reticent to challenge his ‘boss’!

    IF the media were to be given greater reporting rights, such judicial
    “omissions” would be rightly exposed. It is, therefore, perhaps quite
    obvious why the judiciary is adamantly against greater media exposure
    – it simply does not relish being more open to public scrutiny,
    criticism and accountability.

    However, if scrutiny and accountability is good enough for teachers,
    police officers and bankers, then surely it is good enough for judges?

    As a famous US Supreme Court judge once said, “sunlight is the best
    disinfectant”. If our Family Justice System is to be improved – and
    ‘cleaned up’ – then greater external scrutiny and accountability will
    surely help in this objective (as it has so done in other
    professions).

    Perhaps the current ‘secrecy’ in the family courts is more about
    protecting the reputation of the judiciary than about protecting a
    family’s right to privacy…

    Mr BD

  10. I think with most family law cases, an intelligent person can hold and express an opinion without legal training. Indeed, legal training may lead you to view a matter in a defined way, which may not always be right.

    Judges routinely see competing facts in a case, and to put it bluntly, can cherry pick the facts which support their opinion within their written judgment, often entirely ommitting those facts which are contradictory.

    The danger in having the Supreme Court or any other explain its own judgments in place of independent reporting is that inevitably, there will be a degree of bias, as the court understandably seeks to justify its own position.

    Judges, when making their decisions, will look to past decisions for guidance, but this is only looking at historic opinions as to what matters should be considered within the balancing exercise.

    One only has to look at the mess concerning child relocation related family law and the guidance that the judiciary must follow to realise that sometimes judicial opinion is wrong, out-dated, or non-reflective of societies values. The controversy surrounding that area of family law can be seen at http://www.relocationcampaign.co.uk and has been extensively reported on in both legal and broadsheet press (including articles in The Telegraph, but none yet by Mr Booker!).

    I remember an article in The Times by Lord Justice Munby, where he spoke of only having a few minutes to read through 4 lever arch files of evidence over a hasty sandwich before rushing into court to deal with a complex case. It is dangerous to assume that judges always get it right. They are sometimes tired, sometimes bored, sometimes overworked, sometimes biased due to their own particular view of life and occasionally, arrogant. They are human, and subject to the same character flaws as anyone else.

    Michael Robinson of The Custody Minefield

  11. child abuse in this country is a new campaign for me to under take, and within a year I have discovered that, what Mr Booker writes is so true, my god we need so many Journalist such as Mr Booker along with Ian Joseph forced adoption and foster carers, and then John Hemming MP, who I know works 24/7 for the truth to be told by the opening of the family courts. There are so many organisation set up for the protection of children, yet very little is achieved and the children go unheard, why should any child report an abuse, when they are more abused by a system that is supposed to protect them, again I know of this first hand. Social workers and cafcass 9/10 send a child to be fosterd and adopted, WHY, because the foster and adoption agents need the children to sell, because like any buisness no clients you go out of business or bankrupt. It is time for the Goverments to investergate foster and adoption agents, these agents receive from goverments from tax payers millions of pounds a year, just to sell the children, and again an investergation is needed into why social workers do not and will not place children with members of the families, REMEMBER SOCIAL WORKERS WORK HAND IN GLOVE WITH THE AGENTS, I ask you all to do your research, and you will find the answers in, the money jobs and backhanders. That is what children have become a business.
    MAGGIE TUTTLE.

  12. It is easy to get sidetracked when discussing issues concerning free speech.
    1:- It is an unfortunate fact that since 1989 the UK alone in Europe has imposed a gag on parents who have had their children rightly or wrongly” confiscated” by the State.
    2:-It is also an unfortunate fact that alone in Europe newborn babies are taken at birth from their mothers for “risk of emotional abuse”
    3:-Lastly it is also a disgraceful fact that the gag on these parents is absurdly claimed to be there to protect the privacy of babies that can neither read nor write nor understand such matters.The truth being that babies and toddlers are with court approval, regularly advertised for adoption like pedigree cats in the Daily Mirror and other periodicals with photos,first names ,birth dates and character descriptions making them easily recognisable to neighbours and to the horrified parents themselves ! Those same parents whose children are so featured will still be threatened with jail if they reveal names of any social workers or experts concerned in their cases as it is really their privacy and not that of the children that the UK courts protect !

  13. A parent cannot harm a child. A parent can only be responsible for the harm suffered by a child.

    The parental defence is that it would be unreasonable to have expected me to be responsible for the harm.

    Point 1: There is no need to show causality, there is no need for “expert” reports.

    Point 2: The harm is in fact unexplained. At best, the evidence can show that it is consistent with ill treatment or lack of adequate care.

    Point 3: The only point at issue going forward is: will the harm reoccur? The correct defence is that it will not reoccur. Have the child put on the CPR at risk of physical abuse, let everybody know the child is at risk of physical abuse, make everybody else supervise the child’s safety.

    The only issue is to convince the court that you can meet your responsibility to keep the child safe going forward.

    The issue is not proving the parent presents a risk of harm, that is a control order.

    Alastair

  14. Judge Bellamy made several factual errors and omissions and Booker made only one !
    1:-Bellamy criticises Booker for omitting mention of several fractures in his two articles published last year, which mentioned only one.In fact of course even the police were unaware of these fractures as Bellamy admits in his judgement,and only the experts this year brought this news out by their report to the court.At none of the hearings last year were the injuries discussed specifically so Booker would have learned nothing new for his articles if he had attended the courts;At the time he wrote neither he nor the parents could have known about multiple fractures.
    2:-Bellamy admits relying on MY WEBSITE for his evidence and claims that I “sexed up” Bookers article,but this learned judge was too obtuse to notice even now that my site published the information he relied on so heavily two days BEFORE the Booker article appeared in the Sunday Telegraph !So he criticised Booker for my mistake and I can only advise him next time he has a go at a journalist he should read what the journalist has actually written,buy a copy of the newspaper, and look at the date as well !My error omitting the mention of a fraction in what was only a draft after all, was swiftly corrected.
    3:- Bellamy has himself sexed up the “injuries” making them sound horrific almost like a new baby p ! In fact the child never had any operation or other treatment and flourished in Ireland under the care of his Irish mother , Irish grandmother and extended Irish family,until after UK social services indulged in successive court cases that reached the Irish Supeme court (as mentioned but glossed over in the judgement,).UK social workers then retrieved the child from its Irish family at great public expense and brought him back to the care of a UK foster family !(also at public expense).
    4-:- Also mentioned,(but glossed over in the judgement) was the fact that when the injuries were discovered the child was confided to the care of the grandmother with supervised contact alowed to the mother.It was only the grandmother’s wish to retire in Ireland taking the baby with her that aroused such ire in the UK.An Irish lady recently retired as a long standing head teacher from a large school in Scotland is still mystified as to why all this happened as there was NO CARE ORDER in place at the time she left and she reported immediately to Irish social services when she arrived.
    5:-The only error Booker did make was to mistake the identity of one of the many doctors involved in the case;none of whom were named in any case .
    Hardly a significant error compared with those errors and omissions in Bellamy’s judgement !
    6:- Both Christopher Booker and myself campaign not necessarily for the “opening up of the courts” as postulated by Lucy Reed of “pink tape” ,but for the scrapping of the gag that prevents parents who feel aggrieved from protesting or going to the media when their children are taken (rightly or wrongly) from them.Nowhere else in the EU is there such an outrageous gag on the freedom of its citizens to protest if they feel wronged by the State.

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