Times chief investigative reporter Andrew Norfolk has defended his report on a Christian girl “forced” into foster care with Muslim families in Tower Hamlets after the council’s mayor said some of it was “not based in fact”.
The story, published on Monday, reported on a five-year-old white British girl who was taken into protective care and placed with two Muslim couples in the London borough.
The Times said the placements were made against the wishes of the family and that both Muslim women covered their faces in public for religious reasons.
It quoted a council source as saying the families did not speak English and that the girl was forced to learn Arabic, had her cross necklace confiscated and was told she could not eat bacon.
But, speaking on the BBC’s Today programme on Saturday, mayor of Tower Hamlets John Biggs said: “When the story came out we didn’t really recognise what was reported in the media.
“We checked it, we double-checked it, we have challenges in the way the council works which we are working on – which is why I became the mayor – but we felt it was somewhat sensationalist and it didn’t properly represent the facts.”
He said: “The more sensationalist stories about confiscating bacon or about removing crucifixes were, from all of our investigations, not based in fact.”
Biggs said the girl’s grandmother, into whose care she has since been taken, was a non-practising Muslim and that the second foster parents were a mixed race couple who spoke English in the home.
But, he also admitted he did not know “the precise facts”, particularly regarding the language used in the foster homes and the wearing of face veils, adding that the council was “still delving into it”.
Reporter Norfolk, who won the Paul Foot Award in 2013 for his two-year investigation into targeting, grooming and sexual exploitation of teenage girls by gangs of men, told the BBC his story had been based on concerns identified by a social services employee of Tower Hamlets.
He said the source “had observed this five-year-old child being very upset and distressed when she was being returned to that foster home”.
“We reported in our story what a local authority employee reported and what we discovered as a result of further investigations,” he added.
“These are difficult and sensitive issues. My job as a reporter when matters that on the face of it raise serious concerns are brought to our attention, my job is to investigate them.
“And when you discover issues that we believe it is in the public interest to explore and expose, which is exactly by the way what an experienced family court judge said about what we had done on Tuesday – she said we raised concerns that were ‘demonstrably in the public interest’.
“I think we did our job as a newspaper.”
The family court judge expressed “concern” that the Times published photographs of the child and foster carers – although these were pixelated to protect the identity of the girl.
The story was also picked up by the Daily Mail and Metro who drew criticism for photoshopping a face veil on to the stock image of a Muslim family. In a caption, the Mail said the image was “posed by models”.