Did a British judge compel a child to have an abortion?

Reader beware. A story that is too good to be true is often that, not true.

An article in the Huffington Post reporting that a British judge compelled a 13-year-old to undergo an abortion sparked outrage on pro-life blogs and news sites this week. Unfortunately the key claim of the story — what moved this from a tragedy to an outrage — was false.

The Huffington Post ran a story on June 9 entitled “High Court Orders 13-Year-Old Girl To Have Abortion.” This prompted sharp reactions from commentators, while LifeSiteNews.com — a conservative Christian advocacy site — ran a story entitled “UK judge orders 13-year-old to have abortion. This is medical rape.”

The lede in this advocacy piece stated:

This story is truly disturbing. According to the Huffington Post UK: “A ‘very damaged’ 13-year-old girl was ordered to have an abortion by Britain’s most senior family judge, it has been revealed.

The girl, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was impregnated by a 14-year-old boy and initially wanted to keep her baby.”

That’s right. This girl, because she was considered mentally incompetent, was forced — forced — to have her child dismembered, decapitated, and disemboweled by the medical establishment because one Sir James Munby decided that capital punishment was most appropriate for being the child of a someone he described as “very … impaired.”

Where does the error lay? Did the editorial writer at LifeSiteNews misconstrue the Huffington Post story? Here is the lede from the Huffington Post — what would you take this to mean?

A “very damaged” 13-year-old girl was ordered to have an abortion by Britain’s most senior family judge, it has been revealed.

However, other press reports of the incident did not say the judge compelled the girl to have an abortion. The Daily Mail reported the girl had at first declined to have an abortion, but then wanted to have an abortion.

The judge said evidence had been prepared on the basis that the teenager was opposed to a termination. But when the hearing began she was ‘wavering’ and by the end she had wanted a termination. He said the ‘preponderance of evidence” pointed to a termination being in the girl’s best interests and said he had, in any event, concluded that a termination was in her best interests.

The Huffington Post piece did hint at a change of mind.

But Sir James said the girl’s opposition to an abortion had wavered during the hearing. “It was clearly appropriate for me to supply the necessary consent to enable the termination to proceed,” he said.

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On St. Ruth and the state of Fleet Street religion news

Sad news to report from the Press Gazette, the trade newspaper for British journalism. On May 16 it announced The Times was eliminating its religious affairs correspondent post, and Ruth Gledhill would be leaving the newspaper after 27 years of reporting on religion.

The Times decision to make redundant the religion spot means that there are will no longer be a reporter dedicated to covering religion on Fleet Street. The Press Gazette reported:

Fleet Street is to lose its last religious affairs correspondent next week when Ruth Gledhill leaves The Times. Gledhill has confirmed her position is being made redundant as she leaves the paper after 27 years.

The Daily Telegraph has a social and religious affairs editor, John Bingham, but Gledhill is believed to be the last full-time UK national newspaper reporter dedicated to covering religion. Meanwhile, Caroline Wyatt was appointed as the BBC News’s religious affairs correspondent after seven years working as a defence correspondent for the corporation last week. She replaces Robert Pigott, who is moving to become a BBC news correspondent.

Reporter Jonathan Petre of the Daily Mail and columnist Andrew Brown at the Guardian cover religion also for their newspapers, but Ruth’s was the last stand alone Religious Affairs Correspondent in the daily press.

I’m of two minds about this development. On one level this is a shame. Perhaps it is an opportunity.

I’ve known Ruth Gledhill for about 15 years. She has written diary pieces for the publication where I serve as senior correspondent, and I’ve worked on stories with her for The Times. I’ve been her house guest and am acquainted with her husband, the poet, playwright and musician Alan Franks, and am an admirer of her work. I am biased.

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Buddhists boldly bully buzzed Brits

The obnoxious Englishman abroad is a well loved story in the British press. The opprobrium once reserved for the British football hooligan abroad has now spread to his vacationing cousins. Cheap airfares and package holidays to the beaches of the Mediterranean, Florida and points East have given the Briton abroad a reputation for boorishness, lewdness, and alcohol-fueled vulgarity.

“They scream, they sing, they fall down, they take their clothes off, they cross-dress, they vomit,” the mayor of Malia, a popular Greek resort, told the New York Times in 2008. “It is only the British people – not the Germans or the French”.

Are the British the world’s worst behaved tourists? I think Americans can still give the Brits a run for their money. Let me note the annual horror of Spring Break here in Sunny Florida in defense of my claim of American exceptionalism. Aesthetically speaking the sunburnt, tattooed, shaven-headed, bandy-legged Briton abroad is an unpleasing sight. And the men are even worse!

The British government keeps track of the bad behavior of Englishman abroad, publishing an annual report on consular support given to jailed tourists, football hooligans and other assorted louts.The British press has a love hate relationship with yobos abroad. The Daily Mail and other popular newspapers will run stories bemoaning bad behavior and vulgarity with headlines like: “Beer-swilling British women are branded the ‘ugliest in the world’.” However, British television celebrates the bad behavior with documentaries and series like Channel 4‘s “What happens in Kavos” — an English version of the soft porn “Girls gone wild” films distributed in America.

The news that a British nurse vacationing in Sri Lanka is being deported from that country due to a Buddha tattoo that state officials find to be offensive to Buddhist sensibilities is being reported along these lines — the clueless tourist acting in a way that insults the locals. The Guardian‘s story came from the French wire service AFP, which stated:

Sri Lanka has detained a female British tourist for having a Buddha tattoo on her right arm and ordered her deportation, police said on Tuesday. The unidentified woman was arrested at the country’s main international airport on Monday and appeared before a magistrate, who ordered her deportation, police said in a statement.

The statement said she had an image of the Buddha seated on a lotus flower tattooed on her right arm. “She was taken before the Negombo magistrate, who ordered her to be detained prior to deportation,” it said, adding that she was arrested shortly after her arrival on a flight from neighbouring India.

It did not say what charges were brought against her, but Sri Lanka barred another British tourist from entering the island in March last year for showing disrespect to Buddhism by having a Buddha tattooed on his arm.

Subsequent stories in the Guardian and other Western news outlets reported the woman’s name and provided a photo of the tourist showing off her Buddha tattoo. The Guardian also ran an opinion piece noting that the Buddha tattoo was offensive to Sri Lankans arguing:

The arrest and pending deportation of a 37-year-old British nurse, Naomi Coleman, from Sri Lanka for sporting a tattoo of a meditating Buddha on her right arm has once again raised the issue of tourists being woefully unaware of religious and cultural sensitivities in places they visit.

While alcohol was absent from this incident, the photos of the tattoo and its wearer, coupled with statements that the tattoo was considered offensive by Buddhists, slots this story into the ugly Briton abroad category.

But … is this all there is to say on this story? Are Buddhists offended by tattoos of the Buddha? Why is this offensive?

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Interesting Rowan Williams apology: And important, too

Let us return, for a moment, to that interesting quote the other day from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams. You may recall that he said, concerning public debates in the West about religion:

“Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable. I am always very uneasy when people sometimes in this country or the United States talk about persecution of Christians or rather believers.

“I think we are made to feel uncomfortable at times. We’re made to feel as if we’re idiots — perish the thought! But that kind of level of not being taken very seriously or being made fun of; I mean for goodness sake, grow up.”

Quite a vivid quote, that.

So, thinking about this journalistically, where is the bright-red line in the public square between “discrimination” or “hostility” and behavior that can truly be called “persecution”?

This is actually a pretty good question, in an era in which journalists are facing an increasing number of debates about how to cover hot-button topics — think Health & Human Services mandates, for starters — that are linked to debates about basic First Amendment rights, such as free speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion.

It is also interesting to note that Williams has issued a rather unusual clarification, or public apology, in a letter to the editor at The Guardian, about the fierceness of his recent statement. Here it is:

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Removing religious voices from ‘right to die’ debate

YouTube Preview ImageThe Court of Appeal for England and Wales has upheld the blanket ban on euthanasia and assisted suicide, holding there is no “right to die” under British and European Community law. The court in Nicklinson & Anor, R (on the application of) v A Primary Care Trust [2013] EWCA Civ 961 held there was no legal, moral or social need to rethink Parliament’s prohibition on euthanasia.

However, if you turned to The Independent to find out what happened you might well be excused for thinking this was an exercise in unthinking, hard-hearted judicial tyranny. The article “Barbaric and inhumane: Paralysed man Paul Lamb hits back after judges dismiss his right-to-die appeal” is unbalanced and ill-informed. It may well be that The Independent wanted a news story to accompany an op-ed piece entitled “Comment: Case for assisted dying is overwhelming”, but I am hard pressed to tell which is news story and which is the special pleading of one of the parties.

The story opens with:

Britain’s right-to die laws are “barbaric and inhumane” a paralysed man said after three of the country’s most senior judges today rejected his appeal to be allowed assistance to help him end his own life.

Paul Lamb, 57, has spent the past 23 years receiving round-the-clock care following a car crash which left him with only a tiny degree of movement in his right arm. He said politicians were “scared to death” to bring the UK in line with other countries where assisted suicide was legal.

Having framed the story in terms of the feelings of one of the appellants the article states:

Mr Lamb said he had no plans to take his life at present. But he said: “I am doing this for myself as and when I need it. I’m doing it for thousands of other people living what can only be described as a hell. Many of them have been in touch with me begging me to continue this fight. The more it goes on the stronger I am getting,” he said.

This case tells us a great deal about the opinions of Paul Lamb and the British Humanist Association. It is not until the very last paragraph of the story that we hear the voice of someone who believes the court decidedly wisely. And we hear almost nothing as to what the court said and why it said it.
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Some RNS cheerleading for gay marriage

A poor outing from Religion News Service this week in its article about the passage of the British government’s Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. While it is a wire service story and cannot be held to the same standards of depth of reporting as a story prepared in house by a newspaper, it nonetheless should strive for accuracy and provide context — and refrain from cheer leading in support of one side of the story.

The version that appeared in the Washington Post under the title “Queen approves same-sex marriage bill in England, Wales” appears to be in trouble from the start. The Queen in the person of Elizabeth did not approve the bill — the Crown or the Sovereign did. This is a small thing, but it signals the direction of the story. It begins:

England and Wales became the 16th and 17th countries in the world to recognize gay marriage after Queen Elizabeth II gave “royal assent” to a same-sex marriage bill. Under the new law, gay men and women will be able to join together in civil ceremonies or in church services — although no religious denomination will be forced to carry out such services.

The article walks back the headline, but what does RNS mean by saying England and Wales are two countries? Is this an eruption of Welsh nationalism on the part of RNS? Parliament in Westminster passed the bill — not the Welsh Assembly. While Wales has a cultural and linguistic identity and a devolved legislature that addresses some issues, it is not a country.

The article continues by quoting the government minister responsible for shepherding the bill through Parliament and her political allies. It then states:

The bill’s passage saw many angry exchanges. It had the full support of Prime Minister David Cameron, despite the consternation of many in his own Conservative Party. The leaders of two other main parties, the Liberal Democrats and New Labour, also backed it. But some political commentators predict Cameron’s gay-friendly attitudes will cost him at the next election in 2015.

Without seeking comments from opponents of the bill the article then moves to a negative response from the Catholic Church — glossing over the fact that a majority of Conservative MPs voted against the bill. The facile comment about “gay-friendly attitudes” distorts the political facts. It fails to identify who believes the Conservatives will take a drubbing at the next election nor does it say why — other than alluding to hostility to homosexuals. The Coalition for Marriage — one group that fought the bill predicts Cameron will pay a political price for pushing gay marriage — but it is not likely to recognize its views being presented by this article.

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Is Ephesians 6 really about Thatcher’s strength?

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Whenever my Washington Journalism Center students start covering speeches and major public events, always I tell them that they face three major journalistic challenges. They have to:

(1) Get the words down, whether in professional quality notes, on a recording or, ideally, both.

(2) Understand the words, by which I mean that a reporter has to figure out what people are actually saying. This is not always easy because experts in various fields — from national politics to football, from science to theology — tend to speak in their own professional codes. (Example: You know, when my quarterback saw that their back zone was flooded, he knew I’d be able to take my man on a skinny post and beat him to the flag.)

(3) Translate the words, out of the specialty language and imagery of the event into sidewalk-level language that readers will understand.

Here’s an example: Long ago, I went to a movie theater to see an advance screening, for liberal mainline Protestant clergy, of Martin Scorsese’s controversial “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Right up front, I knew that I needed to find someone who knew the subject material behind the movie and could help me evaluate it. As it turned out, the studio had used a National Council of Churches mailing list when preparing the invitations and, thus, the dean of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral was there. I quickly learned that he had read the original Nikos Kazantzakis novel in the original Greek and he was glad to offer his insights into this rather shallow movie (which left him both amused and furious at the same time).

So what, pray tell, does all of this have to do with the Washington Post coverage of the funeral of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher?

Well, I am glad that the Post team attempted to capture some of the religious content of the service. Honest.

However, I do wish the professionals who produced the story had found themselves an authoritative voice, or two, to help them understand key moments in this very deep and defining religious rite. There was no reason for the reporter to go it alone when attempting to discern the meaning of some of the language used in these event.

There was no need, quite frankly, to guess at motives, to guess at the deeper meanings of some of the language. Why not find an expert or two and let them help with translation? In particular, it was important — in light of the deep divisions in Great Britain about Thatcher and her legacy — not to slap political templates over the content of this religious service.

Like what? Read on, carefully:

In accordance with Thatcher’s wishes, the service was quintessentially British, including pieces by English composers Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, delivered a blessing. Cameron and Thatcher’s American-born granddaughter, Amanda, offered readings.

Amanda Thatcher, 19, drew particular accolades for her composure as she read a New Testament verse that spoke to her grandmother’s strength: “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

The Rev. Richard Chartres, a family friend and the bishop of London, told the mourners that Thatcher had requested not a typical eulogy, laced with her political accomplishments, but a more simple and personal address. He delivered just that, reflecting on a young boy who had once written Thatcher asking whether prime ministers, like Jesus Christ, never made mistakes. Thatcher’s life, Chartres acknowledged, had been stormy. But as her remains rested in the church, he said, now “there is a great calm.”

“At such a time, the parson should not aspire to the judgments which are proper to the politician,” he said. “Instead, this is a place for ordinary human compassion of the kind that is reconciling.”

So what is the problem there?

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Los Angeles Times: Fact and fantasy on Mrs. Thatcher

The death Monday of Margaret Thatcher has generated a huge amount of ink from newspapers on both sides the Atlantic. Opinions about the “Iron Lady” vary sharply — and some of these opinion pieces have found their way into the news reports of recent days.

This Los Angeles Times article reports the funeral arrangements –  but it has been crafted less to tell the story about the funeral than to offer its opinions about Margaret Thatcher. Save for a few knowledgeable insiders most reporters covering these sorts of affairs work off of the same press releases and from the same press conferences. The Home Office, Foreign Office, Downing Street, the Church of England, the Metropolitan Police, Buckingham Palace, the Ministry of Defense, and other government offices have been busy telling reporters of their role in the memorial service.

For example, here is the press release from the Ministry of Defense:

The Ministry of Defence has announced details of the Armed Forces’ involvement in the Funeral of The Rt Hon The Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven LG OM PC FRS, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990.

The Funeral will take place on Wednesday 17 April at St Paul’s Cathedral, involving more than 700 Armed Forces personnel. The Coffin will be drawn on a Gun Carriage of the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery from St Clement Danes Church (the church of the Royal Air Force) in the Strand to St Paul’s, with the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force lining the route. Outside the Cathedral a Guard of Honour and Band of 1st Battalion Welsh Guards will be formed up. While the Ceremonial Procession takes place, the Honourable Artillery Company will fire Processional Minute Guns from Tower Wharf, HM Tower of London.

Carrying the Coffin of Lady Thatcher into the Cathedral will be a Bearer Party made up of all three Services, including those from ships, units and stations notable for their service during the Falklands Campaign. Positioned on the steps will be a Step Lining party made up of 18 tri-Service personnel and a contingent of In-Pensioners of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Senior military representatives will attend the service.

The reporter’s task is to distill these press releases into a single story. A good reporter seeks to add value to the story by finding a particular angle that would interest his readers and perhaps a first-person observation from someone or some institution mentioned in the press release. Working from the MOD statement, a knowledgeable reporter could develop a unique angle based on the type of funeral (military v. state), the place of the funeral,  the procession through the city, or some of the military aspects. What he should not do is offer unfounded speculation.

Let’s look at the Los Angeles Times.

LONDON — The funeral of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s longest-serving leader of the 20th century, will be held in St. Paul’s Cathedral on April 17, officials said Tuesday. Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, are expected to attend what will be the most elaborate funeral to be staged in London since the death of the queen’s mother in 2002. It will be the first funeral of a prime minister that the queen will have attended since Winston Churchill’s in 1965. Thatcher, who died Monday at age 87 after years of declining health, will be given a ceremonial service with military honors, a service almost indistinguishable from an official state funeral.

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