In his excellent book, Nick Davies explains what he means by “Flat Earth news”:

A story appears to be true. It is widely accepted as true. It becomes a heresy to suggest that it is not true – even if it is riddled with falsehood, distortion and propaganda.

The process of Flat Earth news making is assisted by the media. The heart of modern journalism, Davies says, is

the rapid repackaging of largely second-hand material, much of it designed to service the political or commercial interests of those who provide it.

This, Davies says, explains why someone with an agenda

can simply slide his unreliable publicity stunt direct into the mass media and see it relayed around the world.

Last weekend a comment piece by Christopher Booker was published on the Telegraph website (at 6.06 pm on November 29) and in the Sunday Telegraph. Its title,

‘Operate on this mother so that we can take her baby’

implied that someone wanted surgery to be performed on a pregnant woman for the purpose of taking her baby from her. Booker reported that a pregnant Italian woman visiting England, whose two children

were with her mother back in Italy

had had

something of a panic attack

whereupon she was “sectioned” under the Mental Health Act. Five weeks later, Booker told us, the woman was sedated. When she woke up

She was not allowed to see her baby daughter, and later learnt that a High Court judge, Mr Justice Mostyn, had given the social workers permission to arrange for the child to be delivered.

At a later court hearing in October 2012, Booker told us, the mother was

told she would be escorted back to Italy without her baby

And in February 2013 a judge in Chelmsford ruled that the baby should be placed for adoption. Essex Social Services, Booker told us, have refused to place the child in Los Angeles with the sister of the Italian mother’s former husband, and father of the first of her children. Finally, we were told by Booker that

Also now involved is John Hemming MP, who has previously helped other foreign parents to win back their children from Britain’s “child protection” system

On John Hemming’s blog (at 7.52 pm on November 29, within a couple of hours of Booker’s piece appearing on the web) entitled

Careful visiting the UK whilst pregnant. They just might take your baby for adoption

the MP linked to the Booker article and wrote that

This story in The Telegraph is a step beyond the normal abuses in the family courts (and court of protection). This was a pregnant mother visiting the UK for a training course lasting only two weeks. It ends up with her baby being taken through a forcible cesarian and then placed for adoption for the usual spurious reasons that are used … The Italian case is one about which more will be heard.

On Monday and again on Tuesday, Hemming blogged suggesting he would raise the case in Parliament.

So who are Christopher Booker and John Hemming?

Booker is a well-known journalist with some unusual views – on asbestos, which he says isn’t dangerous (writing in 2008 in the Guardian on this, George Monbiot called Booker “the patron saint of charlatans”), on creationism (which he seems to support) and on climate change (perhaps you can guess what his views are). Richard Wilson’s blog is fascinating reading for anyone interested in Christopher Booker’s views.

The case of the Italian mother is not Booker’s first about social workers and the family courts. In fact he’s often written about them. In a piece in July 2010 he said

I have never, in all my years as a journalist, felt so frustrated as I do over two deeply disturbing stories of apparent injustice that cry out to be reported

and talked of

one of the greatest scandals in Britain today – the seizing of children by social workers from loving families, on what appears to be the flimsiest and most questionable grounds.

and in another piece dated October 9 2010 he talked of

a most alarming case that I have been reporting here in recent months, involving Coventry’s forcible seizure of a baby

In 2011 both these pieces were criticised by His Honour Judge Bellamy in the Family Division of the High Court in Re L. He said (paras. 187-188 of the judgment):

Mr Booker’s articles contain significant factual errors and omissions. In the first article Mr Booker gives the impression that it was ‘faint bruising’ which prompted the parents to take L to hospital and which gave rise to what he clearly regards as the over-zealous and unjustified actions of social workers working for the same local authority so recently criticised by me in Re X, Y and Z (Children). As he will come to understand when he reads this judgment, it was in fact L’s floppy arm which prompted his parents to take him to hospital. That floppy arm was the result of a spiral fracture of his left humerus. X-rays showed that he also had six metaphyseal fractures. In his first article Mr Booker makes no mention of any of those fractures. It was those fractures which led to the safeguarding measures taken – and in my judgment appropriately taken – by this hospital and by this local authority.

In his second article Mr Booker asserts as fact that in this case ‘the council has depended, in its campaign to seize this baby, on the same controversial paediatrician about whom the judge was so excoriatory’. … I shall refer to that doctor, as I did in Re X, Y and Z (Children), as Dr M. At no time has Dr M had any involvement at all in the case I am now concerned with. Indeed, to the best of my recollection his name has never even been suggested as a possible expert to be used in this case.

The text of Booker’s July 2010 piece has since been changed to refer to a floppy arm rather than bruising; I don’t think the October 2010 piece has been changed.

John Hemming MP is the Liberal Democrat MP for Birmingham Yardley, and a man who’s also shown a close interest in social workers and care proceedings. I’ve written quite a bit about him, and so has Unity at Ministry of Truth.

In 2008 Hemming acted as McKenzie friend to a woman referred to by the High Court as RP, whose child had been taken into care. Even though she was represented by the Official Solicitor, John Hemming was allowed by the court to make submissions on her behalf. As I wrote in 2011, Hemming criticised the involvement of the Official Solicitor, and said the clinical psychologist who assessed RP was “biased”. He also suggested a trainee solicitor has fabricated notes.

In his judgment, the then President of the Family Division of the High Court, Sir Nicholas Wall, rejected Hemming’s allegations against the psychologist (paras. 124-125):

Even more unarguable – indeed it is outrageous – is Mr Hemming’s allegation that HJ was the paid expert of the local authority. She was nothing of the kind. Such an allegation is not only without any evidential foundation of any kind: it is plainly contradicted by the evidence. Mr. Hemming’s allegation that HJ is part of an “evil” system only warrants comment because it comes from a Member of Parliament, and thus from a person in a responsible public position whom one ought to be able to trust only to make serious accusations when they are based on evidence. I am astonished that somebody in Mr. Hemming’s position should have seen fit to put such a disgraceful allegation into the public domain. I reject it unreservedly.

He also rejected the allegation against the trainee solicitor, saying (para. 88)

I find it not only unacceptable but shocking, that a man in Mr Hemming’s position should feel able to make so serious an allegation without any evidence to support it. In my judgment, it is irresponsible and an abuse of his position. Unfortunately, as other aspects of this judgment will make clear, it is not the only part of the case in which Mr Hemming has been willing to scatter unfounded allegations of professional impropriety and malpractice without any evidence to support them.

And summarising his views of John Hemming, he said (paras. 164 and 168)

… the danger of the mother’s approach, reinforced as it has been, in my judgment, by Mr Hemming’s partial and tendentious advice, is that it has been entirely adult focused. Not once in his argument did he mention the welfare of KP. His emphasis, and that of RP was entirely on her rights and the alleged wrongs which had been done to her …

As to Mr. Hemming, my judgment is that his self-imposed role as a critic of the family justice system is gravely damaged, and speaking for myself I will not be persuaded to take seriously any criticism made by him in the future unless it is corroborated by reliable, independent evidence.

In 2011, on April 26, Hemming used Parliamentary Privilege to name a woman involved in child care proceedings who he said had been threatened with prison by a local authority for speaking at a meeting in Parliament which he chaired. At that stage I didn’t name the woman myself when I wrote about what he’d done, mindful of section 97(2) of the Children Act 1989 – although John Hemming, commenting on my blogpost, tried to do so. A few days later on April 30 Christopher Booker wrote about the case, naming the woman who he suggested was fleeing

the babysnatchers

But in August 2011 the President of the Family Division Sir Nicholas Wall (yes, him again) named the woman in court as Vicky Haigh. His published judgment makes clear that the child’s father was not, as Vicky Haigh had alleged by, a paedophile; and (paragraph 12) that

Ms Haigh … is not only unable to accept the judges’ findings but has put into the public domain the false allegations that she has not had justice and that X, contrary to both judges’ findings, has been sexually abused by her father. Those allegations have been posted on the worldwide web and are in the public domain. In addition, the mother has circulated the allegations to the parents of X’s school and to Mr. Tune’s fellow employees at his place of work. All this, of course, has been done illicitly and in breach of orders of the court.

It was for that reason that the court had made an order preventing Ms Haigh from publicising the details of the case. The order was to protect the anonymity of the child. On this blog, I asked 

Can we take at face value Hemming’s implication that he’s only ever been interested in the free speech aspect of this, and not in giving oxygen to the complaints of Vicky Haigh and her supporters about the care case?

Hemming had made a comment here explaining his decision to name Vicky Haigh, as follows:

the point about her name being known publicly is that those people who know here (which is a lot) can then check whether they think the state is at fault or not.

When I pressed him more than once on what he could have meant about enabling people to check whether the state is at fault – except that his naming Vicky Haigh meant people could now search for any “information” about her case on the internet – he never answered. Before we leave the Vicky Haigh case, I must quote paragraph 34 of Sir Nicholas Wall’s judgment, which contains good advice for us all. The emphasis is his:

Any person who embraces one party’s version of events and treats it as the whole truth is making a serious mistake. In most family cases the version given by one side is partial and tendentious; on any view it does not give the other side. The only sensible course is to see what the court says in a judgment on all the evidence. Hence, the rule in English law that a court’s judgment is authoritative, based as it is on all the evidence, is not only sound in law but founded in good sense.

John Hemming made an official complaint against Sir Nicholas Wall in 2008. We know that because Christopher Booker told us so. What he didn’t mention was the outcome of the complaint.

And so, two thousand words in to this blogpost, I return to the case of the Italian mother, now known in the media as the “forced caesarian” case, raised as we know by Christopher Booker and championed by John Hemming, who has tabled an Early Day Motion – number 830 – about it (thanks to David Boothroyd for drawing my attention to it).

I’ll remind you that Christopher Booker’s original report of the case last weekend gave the impression that a pregnant Italian woman whose children were with her mother back in Italy had had something of a panic attack, and as a result was “sectioned”. One day she woke up and was not allowed to see her baby daughter; then she learnt that a High Court judge had given social workers permission to arrange for the child to be delivered by caesarian section. Booker’s piece implied that the surgery was done with the purpose of taking the child. Finally the mother was told she would be escorted back to Italy without her baby.

The Booker version of the case created a storm on Twitter, predictably enough (I’m not sure what stage the storm is now at) and moved Shami Chakrabarti to say

At first blush this is dystopian science-fiction unworthy of a democracy like ours. Forced surgery and separation of mother and infant is the stuff of nightmares.

She was at least sensible enough to qualify her reaction as “at first blush”. Many tweeters were less cautious. Journalists also got in on the act. Here’s initially reporting the Booker version uncritically and calling it “the latest violation of women’s rights”. Here’s, saying

Don’t travel abroad while pregnant because you could have your baby forcibly removed from your womb. That’s what seems to have happened to an Italian woman who, while pregnant and on a business trip to Britain, had some sort of mental health episode and was forcibly committed. While in the psychiatric hospital, Essex social services obtained a court order to force a C-section on the woman and take the newborn into custody.

And here’s the Guardian, saying

We do not know the full details of the Essex case, but reports suggest that the woman sought help for a panic attack (possibly a result of failing to take medication for a pre-existing mental health condition). She was taken to a psychiatric unit, sectioned under the Mental Health Act and hospitalised for five weeks before being sedated and given a caesarean section without her knowledge, let alone consent. There is no suggestion the caesarean was necessary to protect her health or life, only that it was requested by social services to remove the baby for child protection purposes.

This is the Booker version served with sauce.

At this point, it’s worth taking a few minutes to ask yourself how plausible the Booker version actually sounded. How likely do you think it is that a woman was detained under mental health legislation for five weeks simply because of “something of a panic attack”? How likely was it that social workers wanted to make sure a caesarian section was performed on the woman just so that they could get their hands on her baby, and could either persuade a judge to agree, or fabricate some other reason? How likely was it that doctors would perform that surgery if (as the Guardian said in an embellishment, or spelling out, of the Booker version) there was no suggestion the caesarean was necessary to protect the mother’s health?

Of course we actually knew very little about what happened. But unless you harbour conspiracy theories about judges, the NHS and social workers, you probably think this sort of thing sounds unlikely, and want proper evidence before believing it. You’d be right.

Essex County Council said in a statement on Monday that it was a health trust (presumably an NHS trust) which sought permission from the court to perform a caesarian section because of concerns about risks to mother and child. Essex said the mother was able to see her baby on the day of birth and the following day. Essex say social workers obtained an interim care order from the County Court because the mother was too unwell to care for her child. They say the mother has two other children which she is unable to care for due to orders made by the Italian authorities. They say social workers liaised with the extended family before and after the birth of the baby to establish if anyone  could care for the child. They say the Italian courts have ruled that child should remain in England, and that in October 2013 they got permission from the County Court to place the child for adoption.

Essex’s version clearly contradicted Christopher Booker, who said it was social workers who’d been given permission to arrange for the child to be delivered and that the mother was not allowed to see her baby daughter. Of course Essex’s is only one side of the story, and may well not give the full picture. But given the track record of Christopher Booker and John Hemming, it was right to accept it until it was demonstrated to be wrong. To be fair, at that stage lamentably few people knew their track record.

But since then we’ve also seen His Honour Judge Newton’s County Court judgment in the car and adoption proceedings, dated February 1 2013. From that judgment it seems (para. 4) that the mother has been detained in Italian psychiatric hospitals twice (paras. 5 and 6), and that

the situation when the mother has not taken her medication is that she has had a number of very intrusive paranoid delusions.

All Christopher Booker told us was that she’d had something of a panic attack.

It seems the Italian courts have placed her two other children with their grandmother because the mother is unable to look after them. One of the children has, the judge said (para. 5)

been both traumatised and indeed has been terrorised, not by the mother’s behaviour, but by what it is that she has witnessed and in particular her mother being profoundly unwell.

It also seems that at some point (para. 6) the Italian court restricted the children’s contact with their mother, and (para. 7) in 2012 there were ongoing legal proceedings in Italy in relation to them.

All Christopher Booker told us was that the Italian woman’s other children were with her mother back in Italy. As though the grandmother were just minding them during the mother’s trip to England.

It seems (para. 8) that a District Judge gave permission for social workers to withhold contact between the mother and baby. It seems doctors at one stage wanted the baby placed with the mother in hospital, but HHJ Newton says (para. 8)

I was and remain deeply concerned about that. It might have been in the mother’s interests but I think the mother, today, would understand that it would not have been in P’s interests for that to have occurred.

It seems (paragraph 9) that the mother was escorted back to Italy because she wanted to go there. The judge was critical of doctors for that, because in his view that she was still too mentally ill at that stage, and because her return to Italy reduced the chances of her getting the baby back.

All Christopher Booker told us was that she was told she would be escorted back to Italy without her baby. As though she’d been deported.

From the adoption judgment it does not seem to have been argued that the new baby should be cared for by its grandmother. The judge concluded (para. 20) that no one in the extended family could look after the child. He rejected the claim of the father. His immigration status in Italy is unclear and (para. 1) although he had been visited in Italy by social workers and the child’s guardian ad litem, and although the judge had given him permission to take part in the proceedings, he had not done so.

And now we also have Mr Justice Mostyn’s ruling on the caesarian section application by the NHS trust, together with a note from Mr Justice Mostyn, in which he says

the application to me was not made by the local authority or social workers. Rather, it was an urgent application first made at 16:16 on 23 August 2012 by the NHS Trust, supported by the clear evidence of a consultant obstetrician and the patient’s own treating consultant psychiatrist, seeking a declaration and order that it would be in the medical best interests of this seriously mentally ill and incapacitated patient, who had undergone two previous elective caesarean sections, to have this birth, the due date of which was imminent (she was 39 weeks pregnant), in the same manner.

The patient was represented by the Official Solicitor who instructed a Queen’s Counsel on her behalf. He did not seek an adjournment and did not oppose the application, agreeing that the proposed delivery by caesarean section was in the best interests of the patient herself who risked uterine rupture with a natural vaginal birth. I agreed that the medical evidence was clear and, applying binding authority from the Court of Appeal concerning cases of this nature, as well as the express terms of the Mental Capacity Act 2005, made the orders and declarations that were sought.

The ruling makes it crystal clear that permission for the surgery was sought because psychiatrists said the patient was suffering from psychotic episodes and delusional beliefs (in fact the NHS trust’s barrister said she had a schizophrenic disorder which was psychotic in nature) and because her obstetrician said there was a risk of uterine rupture.

So the key claim that social workers sought this surgery in order to take the child is shown to be false.

The adoption proceedings are ongoing, and will now be heard in the High Court by Sir James Munby, who is Sir Nicholas Wall’s successor as President of the Family Division.

Some people of course were sensible enough to see through the Flat Earth news from the very beginning. Many Tweeters (sorry: you’re too numerous to name individually) urged caution. The family law barrister Lucy Reed wrote an excellent blogpost on Monday. Adam Wagner wrote about it yesterday, and linked to posts by Elisabeth Prochaska and Suspicious Minds. Dr Evan Harris wrote at Liberal Democrat Voice questioning the Booker version. Buzzfeed admirably came out early with a piece declaring the original story wrong (its piece has since been updated to take account of Mostyn J’s ruling).

It’s worth noting that Tom Phillips, the journalist who wrote that Buzzfeed piece, had also written the “Pricehound” story I linked to above about the “29 stages of a Twitterstorm”. That shows two things: first, that an instinct for satire and commitment to truth are related; and second, that it may be new media which best understands, in this viral age, how to tell Flat Earth news from the real thing.

But from far too much of the media we’ve had an entirely one-sided, sensationalist and churnalistic approach to this story. Even now that Mostyn J’s ruling is public, destroying conspiracy theories about the caesarian, I imagine some Twitter users will continue to mine Italian media reports to feed speculation and grind axes about the adoption. They should stop.

We still do not know everything about this case, of course. It may be that the adoption decision was taken too lightly – Lucy Reed in her blogpost wondered whether it can now stand in the light of the Court of Appeal’s judgment in Re B-S (Children) in September, in which Sir James Munby said (para. 30):

We have real concerns, shared by other judges, about the recurrent inadequacy of the analysis and reasoning put forward in support of the case for adoption, both in the materials put before the court by local authorities and guardians and also in too many judgments. This is nothing new. But it is time to call a halt.

Social workers can get things wrong, as can judges – and if they’ve done so in this case, I’ve no doubt we’ll find out when this case gets before Sir James. Even a stopped clock is sometimes right, and it may turn out that somewhere in all this the Bookers and Hemmings, and all the ignorant armchair critics of what’s happened in this case, have stumbled upon a point. But even if they have, that won’t justify Christopher Booker’s Flat Earth story –

‘Operate on this mother so that we can take her baby’

or John Hemming’s claim that 

this has a fair chance of being the worst case of human-rights abuse I’ve ever seen.

To adapt Sir Nicholas Wall’s words, these men’s self-imposed role as critics of the family justice system is surely now damaged beyond repair. Not only social workers and NHS doctors, who’ve been unfairly smeared in all the speculation, but mentally ill people, vulnerable children and the general reading public deserve better than for their Flat Earth news ever again to be uncritically boosted as it has this week.