Guest contribution by Conor James McKinney, Full Fact Writer/Researcher
Full Fact is the UK’s only independent factchecking organisation. We check factual claims made by politicians, journalists and pressure groups, and stop misinformation spreading by pressing for corrections. We have a cross-party board of trustees and our funding comes mainly from charitable trusts.
Since setting up in 2010, we’ve secured corrections from Ministers, government departments, MPs, the BBC, pressure groups and a wide range of national newspapers. Picking up patterns from our factchecks has prompted us to make systemic interventions, resulting in the Daily Mail and Sun setting up corrections columns, and Ministers being required to stop using unpublished statistics.
For the 2015 election, we ran an 18-hour-a-day rapid reaction centre, hosting volunteers including staff from the Office for National Statistics. At 6am we opened our doors, getting a head start on the story of the day to intervene in the news cycle on topics ranging from zero hours contracts to food banks, and responding to the non-stop queries from the public and journalists.
Our experience in family justice: limited, but rewarding
In the past, Full Fact has been mainly associated with statistics: as relevant to family justice as to any other walk of life. We’ve checked topics including whether black children take twice as long to be adopted as white children; whether the length of care proceedings has fallen in recent years, even before the imposition of the 26-week limit; whether fewer children are being adopted; and, most recently, whether England and Wales is unusual in permitting non-consensual adoption.
But we’re not, if we ever were, just about the numbers. High profile legal figures have been raising concerns about the inaccuracy of reporting on legal issues for years, including Sir James Munby, who has said in the past that “decreasing confidence in some quarters in the family justice system… is too much of the time based upon ignorance, misunderstanding, misrepresentation or worse”.
We’ve been able to clear away some of this, thanks to the generous support of the Legal Education Foundation funding our first legal researcher post.
With the public debate on human rights and legal aid cuts, there’s been plenty to cover. Family justice hasn’t been high on the national news agenda – but prominent isn’t the same as important, and we’d like to do more.
Family law, both private and public, is fertile ground for misunderstanding and misinformation. We recently covered the case of the couple deemed “too old” to adopt their granddaughter by the Family Court at Chelmsford – or so it was reported.
It transpired that the judge himself had rather more to say about the grandparents in question than the fact of their ages; the “main concern” described in the judgment had nothing to do with age — and that’s not an isolated case.
It’s important to say that we aren’t taking up any particular, fixed position on the spectrum of opinion about family law. We don’t think the system is infallible, or that all criticism springs from ignorance. Nor is it for Full Fact to have a vision of how family justice should work. But we do think that healthy debate about reform of any system should be rooted in the facts.
Specialist expertise is an important resource
While all our researchers specialise to a degree in a broad area like education or health and social care, we aren’t subject matter experts in everything we cover. With careful preparation and rigorous standards, we can add value and clarity to a debate, and sometimes this involves seeking out experts.
For instance, the report we published towards the end of the general election campaign in May included contributions from the Nuffield Trust, Institute for Fiscal Studies, National Foundation for Educational Research, and Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.
We also have long-standing links with the independent Office for National Statistics and Government Statistical Service, including a three month secondment programme and a close working relationship with the statistics watchdog, which regulates use of statistics by public figures as well as the production and quality of official statistics.
Trying to ensure that impartial experts have their voice heard in public debate, and inform what we do ourselves, is important to us.
We’ve been fortunate enough to meet and correspond with the trustees of the Transparency Project already. We found we had lots of common ground. Transparency Project expertise has been helpful in helping us understand the background to current issues in adoption and, in turn, explain these to our own varied (and growing) audience.
We’ll keep exploring ways in which we can work together. To find out more, contact the Transparency Project trustees. You can also reach Full Fact directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.