The latest scandal over foster services and the UKIP party reveal how low the British press can stoop. Will Leveson help at all?
Last week on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Jim Naughtie monstered Joyce Thacker, head of children’s services in Rotherham, over a decision to take three non-indigenous white children away from foster parents who were members of UKIP. I was shocked by the gross inequality of an interview which Naughtie transformed into confrontation: a powerful cosmopolitan male journalist on his home ground harassing and bullying a woman hoist out of her daily life to be interrogated before the nation on utterly unfamiliar media terrain.
In my view, the media are shown up badly in two ways over the Rotherham case. Damian Hockney’s complaint about the dismissive treatment that parties outside the big two-and-a-half receive is in my view justified. There is no conspiracy, rather an unexamined mindset that has long reflected the once powerful position of the two main parties and has now outlived the changing realities of party politics in the UK. Even the coverage that UKIP does get focuses on its effect on the Tories’ electoral prospects and not on its policies and arguments. The fuss over the social services’ decision is, as Hockney says, an almost accidental fillip for UKIP in the midst of the Rotherham by-election campaign that they have quickly taken advantage of, bringing a small personal and domestic situation straight to the media.
This for me brings into play an example of a primary issue of concern about the conduct of our media. In an instant the media, led by the Telegraph and Mail, blasted the story into orbit as an overriding national concern, raising a quite false issue into prominence: should social services ban foster parents on grounds of their party political affiliation to UKIP or any other political allegiance? And adding for good measure canards about a Labour council indulging in political bias; and interfering and politically correct social workers branding “exemplary” foster parents as racists.
For a start, it is quite clear that Rotherham does not operate a blanket ban on foster parents who are Ukip members. The decision in this case was specific to the circumstances of the actual fostering, namely, was it appropriate to foster East European children with a couple who belonged to a party whose overriding political position was opposition both to immigration, and from East Europe in particular, and to multiculturalism. All the complexities of the case and Mrs Thacker’s explanations were brushed aside, while Nigel Farage’s robotic whinges, Gove’s strident certainties, Labour’s defensive collusion came to the fore.
I know no more of the facts of the case than Farage, Gove or Miliband. However the social workers, who are as ever so readily demonised by the media, do seem to have had a reasonable cause for what was always going to be a difficult decision. As I understand it, they had placed the children only temporarily with the foster parents before seeking a more permanent placement. They then discovered that the parents were members of a party that is hostile to the immigration of EU migrant people and to multiculturalism. Mrs Thacker has explained, “These children have previously been in our care and we were severely criticised by the courts in terms of not meeting their cultural and ethnic needs. So when it became clear to us that the couple had political affiliations to Ukip we had to seriously think about their longer term need.” To her credit, she has praised the foster parents and said there was no “quality of care” issue with them.
It is interesting that Hockney suggests that the media’s blanking of UKIP’s cause may well be dangerous for democracy. There are indeed disturbing signs of fury and paranoia building up behind the mainstream debate. The right wing blogospherehas exulted in Naughtie’s interview with this “Car Crash Commissar and Child Catcher in Chief”, namely Mrs Thacker, who now stands 'exposed, apparently, as a member of Common Purpose. You may well think that this well-meaning organisation is politically innocuous, but no. It is “a left wing version of the Freemasons (apologies to the Freemasons who certainly don’t deserve to be bracketed in the same noisome category)” that is into “secret deal-making and ‘group think’”. On Guido Fawkes' blog, Hang the Bastards said, “What a biggoted [sic] f.ucking moronic cow! I watched the stupid clueless whore on TV and the only conclusion I came to was THANK F.UCK SHE’S NOT A FOSTER PARENT! The likes of her are a danger to our society, not the likes of UKIP or their voters”. 13Beastie said, “Crosshairs, please.” Aaron D Highside responded, “Crosshairs indeed for the whole weird Common Purpose organisation”.
There is a clear strand of opinion that believes the country is at the mercy of a soft left status quo that is dedicated to destroying the family, a repository of decent traditional values, by among other stratagems, introducing the noisome notion of same-sex marriage, while it destroys society by encouraging multiculturalism and refusing to control immigration; and Common Purpose is a sinister conspiracy, that is, “just like Agenda 21, a way of entrenching the ideology of the communitarian left – in the civil service, in the police, in the media (especially the BBC/Guardian) and, of course, among such local government apparatchiks as Joyce Thacker”. Even Ian Hislop is held to be part of the plot. There is a vociferous complaint about his comments on Have I Got News for You last week, pouring scorn on the Common Purpose story. He is finally written off as more “a wet Tory in the Max Hastings tradition” rather than an ideological leftie, “short-sighted, intellectually flabby, morally cowardly – and irrelevant.”
Back in the real world, it is I fear Leveson that is going to be irrelevant. Statutory underpinning of press regulation or not, it is hard to see how the media’s tendency to inflate incidents in the lives of ordinary people into major national scandals – and to bully and harass them at will – can be checked. Yet it must be, if everyday citizens are to be able to assert their dignity against media intrusion at these moment of crisis.