Below is the text of a complaint submitted to The Telegraph today about Mr Booker’s reporting of H (A Child), Re (Interim Care Order : fact finding)  EWHC 518 (Fam), which we don’t think is accurate. It is frustrating that we have to keep making such complaints. We are not particularly enthusiastic about having to repeat similar points in complaint after complaint, or about repeatedly complaining about the same journalist, but we tell it as we see it – and unfortunately Mr Booker’s columns seem regularly to contain factual inaccuracies and material omissions which we don’t think will help people to form their own opinions about how the cases in question are dealt with. We wish it were not so. We will update our post when we hear back from The Telegraph. Links to our previous blog posts about this and our letter to the editor of The Sunday Telegraph are contained in the body of the complaint, at the bottom.
This is a complaint regarding Christopher Booker’s column : A gifted child in a psychiatric unit is madness (published under main headline : Thousands of Britons are still waiting to find out what Brexit will do to their livelihoods)
Our complaint is under Clause 1 Editors’ Code : accuracy. For the avoidance of doubt we rely on the provisions relating to inaccuracy, misleading and distortion :
“The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.”
We also rely upon the duty in Clause 1 to “distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact”.
This column relates to a case which has been dealt with recently in the Family Division of The High Court.
Mr Booker describes the circumstances and rationale of a move of a “gifted” 15 year old boy into a “psychiatric unit”. His piece makes clear that he does not consider the move to be in the child’s best interests and that he does not consider it justified or explicable. He says it is “madness”. Mr Booker makes a number of assertions of fact in order to support the view he puts forward. Nothing in this complaint is intended to stop Mr Booker from expressing his opinion.
The relevant judgment is H (A Child), Re (Interim Care Order : fact finding)  EWHC 518 (Fam) (http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2017/518.html). A subsequent connected judgment can be found here : Westminster City Council v H  EWHC 1221 (Fam) (19 May 2017) (http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Fam/2017/1221.html).
The judgment confirms that the child in question is a young man who for many years has been exposed to the harmful behaviour of his parents, and that behaviour has jeopardised his physical and educational development and wellbeing and has put his life at risk. The judge summarises his findings :
“i) The parents have misreported and exaggerated H’s medical symptoms, which has led to his physical and emotional harm;
- ii) [which] led to the unnecessary insertion or prolonged use of a Hickman Line whichexposed H not merely to risk of short term infection but to the risk of liver failure in the longer term;
iii) M, through her bullying and bombastic behaviour has intimidated medical professionals and others, to the extent that she has confused and undermined their confidence in their own professional judgement. This generated a febrile atmosphere in which there was an elevated risk of clinical error, thus compromising H’s safety;
- iv) …both parents and on separate occasions, covertly tampered with H’s TPN pump.The effect of this was to cause confusion and alarm on the ward and jeopardise professional objectivity;
- v) F has both directly supported and passively acquiesced in M’s distorted perspective of H’s medical needs;
- vi)M presented H to the world as dying and inculcated in him a view that he was;
vii) The parents’ actions above led to H’s prolonged stays in hospital and denied him his opportunity for education and socialisation.
…the harm caused to H by his parents, protracted over many years, exposed him to significant harm at the most serious end of the spectrum, ultimately risking his life. [our emphasis]”
In the second judgment the judge says :
“[The mother] inculcated in H himself, a view that he was dying. The parents’ actions led to prolonged stays in hospital, the consequence of which was that H has been robbed of much of his childhood and teenage years.”
CODE BREACHES :
- OMISSION OF CORE FACTS – MISLEADING / DISTORTED
None of the above findings are referred to in the article, even in summary (We would not expect it to be rehearsed in full but we would expect the article to at least indicate that a judge had found the parents to have seriously harmed their child and to present a risk to him, even if the writer disagreed with those findings).
Even if Mr Booker does not accept the findings as fact, it is a fact that they have been made. We consider the existence of the findings is a fact that Mr Booker ought to have drawn to the attention of his readers.
The column is written without identifying that findings have been made, let alone what those findings were, and therefore creates an impression that the transfer of the child to a specialist mental health unit (not a psychiatric unit as described in the article) is inexplicable and unjustifiable. This is exacerbated by the failure to properly set out the nature of the unit or the reason for its selection / the purpose of the child’s admission there (which we deal with below).
Whilst Mr Booker is quite entitled to disagree with the decision to place the child in the GOSH MCU (the “psychiatric unit” Mr Booker complains of) the failure to make any reference to the fact that the parents had been found following trial to have caused him significant physical and psychological / emotional harm such that he could not exercise any autonomy, and that there were valid medical and welfare reasons for separating him from his parents and temporarily restricting his communications, is positively misleading. It creates a misleading impression that the move to the unit is both inexplicable and unjustifiable.
Mr Booker may hold and express the opinion that the move was in fact unjustified, but it is clearly justifiable if one accepts the findings of the court. We think that readers should know such findings have been made even if they do not know the full detail.
The account that Mr Booker gives is distorted as a result of the failure to include key facts and to note the existence of the judge’s findings.
- “NO MENTAL PROBLEMS” – INACCURATE. MISLEADING.
Mr Booker describes the child as “gifted” and states that “Far from having any “mental problems”, the boy is the very opposite”.
It is clear from the judgments in this case that as a result of his parents’ harmful behaviour the child requires psychiatric / psychological assessment and / or help : “[he] will have developed both a psychological and physical dependency on [opiate] drugs” and will require “therapeutic support in order that H may be afforded the opportunity to assert his most basic of rights, his own personal autonomy”. In the second judgment the judge confirms that “[The] plan [the move to the unit] was designed to facilitate a proper assessment of H’s identified needs, both physical and psychological. Furthermore, there were no alternative options available.”
The assertion that the boy has no “mental problems” (to adopt the blunt and inappropriate characterization of Mr Booker) is inaccurate. Furthermore, the suggestion in the title and body of the article that the child ought not to be in a psychiatric unit because he is “gifted” is a false dichotomy and confuses learning difficulty with mental health difficulty. We consider this to be misleading in the context of the piece overall and the implications made.
- PSYCHIATRIC UNIT FOR YOUNGER GIRLS WITH ANOREXIA – INACCURATE. MISLEADING.
It is clear that Mr Booker was provided details of the unit where the child was staying as he accurately describes the age bracket for patients being accepted (http://www.gosh.nhs.uk/parents-and-visitors/coming-hospital/ward-and-admissions-information/mildred-creak-unit-mcu). However he describes it inaccurately in order to create the impression that the unit is inappropriate : it is a multidisciplinary unit involving a range of disciplines / expertise (not just psychiatric) and treats children with a range of mental health difficulties. Mr Booker states that the unit treats “mainly much younger girls suffering from anorexia”. We can see no evidence from the website that the unit treats mainly girls, or that it treats mainly younger children (anorexia is a condition suffered by both boys and girls and the unit treats children from age 7 to 15), and the unit lists three specialist areas : eating disorders (including anorexia nervosa), somatising disorders and mood disorders (such as depression) – not just anorexia. Given the history of the case the latter two specialisms are likely to have been part of the reason the unit was identified as suitable.
The assertion that the unit to which the child was moved treats “mainly much younger girls suffering from anorexia” is inaccurate. The implication that it was therefore inappropriate for this child is misleading, particularly given the failure to refer to the other highly pertinent specialisms of the unit.
- REASON FOR ENTRY INTO UNIT – INACCURATE.
Christopher Booker states that “The need to move him to this place so urgently, when his only wish was to return home, was that the unit’s rules don’t allow it to admit any children after their 16th birthday, which in his case is next month.”
It is quite clear from the judgments that this was not the reason for the move to this unit. There was an urgent need for assessment by a unit which could assess his mental health / psychological / emotional needs, whilst also having access to staff to manage his complex physical care needs. Initially that had been attempted at “Unit A” but it became clear they did not have the expertise manage his physical needs. The judgment says in terms that the MCU (Booker’s “Psychiatric Unit”) was the only unit available (See quotes above).
The assertion regarding the reason for the move is inaccurate.
The assertion that the move is for bureaucratic reasons, without setting out the welfare based reasons, is misleading and distorted.
- FORCIBLY TAKEN TO SECURE UNIT – INACCURATE.
Christopher Booker asserts that the child was “forcibly taken to a secure “psychiatric unit””.
The judge records that on the afternoon of 17 May the child “voluntarily and not without some hesitation… was able to go to the MCU and did not resist.”
The assertion that the child was forcibly taken to a psychiatric unit is false.
- INEXPLICABLE DECISION MAKING – INACCURATE. MISLEADING. DISTORTED.
Christopher Booker states that “The most quoted words from the Children Act, under which all this has been done, are those usually paraphrased as “the interests of the child are paramount”. It would be hard to explain to this hyper-intelligent young man how this could possibly apply to his present plight.”
The judgment explains precisely how the move to the unit was in his best interests. It would be entirely possible to explain to the child in question and to the public why the move and the restrictions were in his best interests but Christopher Booker has chosen not to do so. Indeed in his second judgment Mr Justice Hayden records that he has visited the child :
“The restrictions contemplated [internet etc] are very hard for him to bear. I am entirely satisfied that they are necessary, not least because they are the route by which H can communicate with his mother, who is, as I have said, so extremely resistant to this assessment and to the MCU. Moreover, because the assessment itself is multidisciplinary and wide ranging it requires to be undertaken in a calm and cooperative atmosphere and for H this will likely be more constructive away from the endless stimulation that the Internet brings.”
From the fact that the child went to the unit voluntarily following discussions it is apparent that it was capable of being explained to him.
The assertion that the move to the unit is hard to explain to the child is an extension of the overarching implication that the actions of the court are inexplicable and unjustifiable, and as such is misleading. There is a very clear explanation of the case that Mr Booker could have made available to his reader by linking or thumbnail sketch – the judgment in the case.
This complaint is made by Lucy Reed on behalf of The Transparency Project. We are an educational charity whose aims are making family law clearer and helping the public to understand the work of the family courts. We are not interested in shutting down criticism of the Family Courts. We are interested in accuracy and balance, which requires opinion to be properly contextualized with basic facts.
Our writing about this case can be read here :
Chair, The Transparency Project
13 June 2017
Update 9 July : On 2 July The Telegraph published the following correction regarding the 21 May and subsequent column (see also Correction Requests Update :
The Telegraph did not accept our complaints on other issues, but did agree to add a link to the judgments to the relevant columns, which they have now done here. Good news.
Feature pic : Erica Minton on Flickr (Creative Commons licence – thanks!)