Sometime last week, the Chief Investigative Reporter for the The Times sat down at his laptop and wrote a story he knew was a lie.
“Christian child forced into Muslim foster care” was the headline. The opening sentence as follows.
“A white Christian child was taken from her family and forced to live with a niqab-wearing foster carer”
Andrew Norfolk, in writing these words, knew they amounted to lies. The girl’s racial and religious background is mixed according to court documents, with foreign-born Muslim grandparents (though the mother disputes the religious identity).
The entire story, from headline to closing to paragraph, was a series of lies and lies by omission. Others have detailed this, the shoddy basis of the story, and the wider context of poor reporting on Muslims.
I’m interested in why a senior and experienced journalist so brazenly lied on the front-page of a national newspaper?
Idiocy is one explanation. Maybe Andrew Norfolk is just thick like a Five Guys milkshake. He didn’t check his facts. He didn’t check his narrative. He didn’t explore the alternative ways in which the story could be portrayed. He wasn’t aware of the race-baiting inherent in the way the headline was phrased, nor of the political context in which the story was aired. He had no idea that other outlets would repeat his story further spreading the lies. I’m not convinced by this explanation, but I keep an open mind about it.
The second is that he is a liar. Andrew Norfolk doesn’t actually care about the truth. Perhaps he has lied significantly throughout his career when it suited him. It just so happens that this is the first time that his lie was found out. This theory is also possible, but feels incomplete to me.
Or perhaps he was desperate. He needed a scoop, a story to drive up The Times newspaper sales and online subscriptions. So he knowingly twisted the facts of a case involving a young girl, knowing the harm it would do to the girl, to the foster families, knowing that it would feed the fantasies of the far-right and further divide the country, but nonetheless in need of justifying his salary to his bosses. Given the success of tabloids, which indulge in this very type of sensationalism, this theory holds weight. But still, there are other explanations to consider.
Maybe Norfolk is an Islamophobe. Perhaps he detests Muslims, he detests the diversity of Britain, detests the way in which structures of white racial superiority are being challenged, and so he decided to write a story that further demonised Muslims, that inflamed other racists to action. Entirely possible too.
I’m not sure why Andrew Norfolk lied. But this isn’t just about Andrew Norfolk. There are many more journalists telling lies about Muslims. Politicians too. There are others who repeat them, local journalists and clickbait writers, who never question the narratives which are propagated by the broadsheets and recreate them in their own work.
For many, myself included, The Times’ story felt like a new line in the sand. The story was not about terrorism, extremism, or cultural difference. The only sin committed by the villains in the story, as written by Norfolk, was that they were Muslim and had the audacity to be involved in public life. It’s the first such story like this in a mainstream outlet I can think of, but I fear it’s not the last.
Which is why it feels so important to understand why Norfolk and other journalists lie, to understand how to better combat it.