Thanks Adam Wagner for pointing out the "shocking revelations" in the Mail today (It's the social workers who are racist, say Slovak parents in UKIP fostering scandal: The Mail reveals the truth behind Thought Police furore - and it's more shocking than it seemed), concerning the UKIP foster care row. I was planning to have a quiet sit down before court today, but now I've seen this I feel compelled to dash out a little rant before I go, otherwise I'll rock up to court all "Grrrr" and "ppppffft", which is never good.
This is not "THE TRUTH" about the slovakian children fostering row : it's the parents' account of it. No doubt it is the truth in their eyes, and in the eyes of John Hemming MP (quel surprise that his mugshot and helpful quote features in the article). But it ISN'T "the truth". And it's not fair and balanced reporting.
Others have commented about how the Local Authority are no doubt constrained by the law (Dr Julie Doughty here for example), by their obligations to the children, and probably by court orders from revealing information about the case in order to rebalance the story as it appears to the public.
In this article it is reported that the father of the children has been told "he faces jail if he talks to the press". To lawyers dealing with care proceedings this indicates that the Father has probably received legal advice or a warning from the judge (or both) about this, and that specific injunctions may be in place.
So why are The Daily Mail still publishing this stuff? If there is an injunction in place it runs counter to the court's view of what is in the best interests of the children, and it places the parents at risk of criticism or punishment. It is arguable that some of the detail published in this article amounts to the publication of "information relating to the proceedings" and is contrary to s12 Administration of Justice Act 1960 without more, and it is arguable that there is a significant risk of jigsaw identification of these children by their school peers and members of the community, which is in breach of s97(2) Children Act 1989 (criminal offence).
In the week after Leveson was published how is this responsible reporting? One can see from the comments on the article the kind of frenzy that this sort of highly emotive reporting is likely to whip up. It does not help inform the public.
I would like to think that when the press come to think about the "robust self regulation" that they all say they are willing to impose upon themselves, they will give some serious thought to the appropriate approach to the reporting of stories concerning children who are the subject of court proceedings. I don't think it is right or practical to argue for a clampdown - for less information to be in the public domain. The freedom of the press is important and these stories, whatever I think of the quality of the reporting ARE important.
(that's a big but you see) I do think that the identities of children should be better protected and that the press should be obligated or incentivised - and before that permitted - to report a balanced picture when they do report. At the moment the courts are like King Canute, and the existing rules are flouted by the press, parents and campaigners, whilst public bodies are constrained by them. This creates a warped public perception of family proceedings and publishing a judgment on BAILII where it sits in splendid isolation is simply a wholly ineffective way of redressing the balance.
Here's what I think might be better : It should be good practice to provide full neutral citations of cases where there is a published judgment, and for online articles a direct link to BAILII judgments (there isn't one in this instance but they are often easy to identify). And it would be good practice to seek a statement from the Local Authority (or both parents in private law disputes) before publication. For this to work though the courts would need to be far better at permitting the Local Authority to disclose information and this would probably need some statutory tinkering (Children Schools and Families Act 2010 Mark 2). If there were a general relaxation of the reporting restrictions to enable anonymised reporting as default, it would be good practice for a child's guardian and the Local Authority to be put on notice before any story is published so that injunctive relief can be sought if the specifics of the case demand.
So lets start with linking to BAILII judgments where available, and using neutral citations. Or perhaps that's too close for comfort where the press are probably reporting in breach of the rules on privacy? As long as a sensational story of injustice and secrecy is not identifiable it is difficult for the courts, for aggrieved parties or for those trying to protect the children's privacy to challenge. And difficult for more responsible journalists to challenge through more balanced reporting.
Off to court now...not holding my breath.