The heavy-handed hunt for Ashya and how papers were manipulated by hospital
Religion a red herring - and we fell for it
Tuesday 2 September, 2014
Nobody wants anything but the best for Ashya King - but, my goodness, everybody seems to have conspired to bring about the worst.
This five-year-old boy with a brain tumour is now in hospital in Malaga, separated by 300 miles from his parents who are in custody in Madrid. A warrant was issued for their arrest on some vague "cruelty" or "neglect" ground that even now the police have yet to explain fully.
Setting aside for a moment the rights and wrongs of the police handling of this case, the national newspaper coverage has been a classic example of believing the last person you spoke to. That has led some to perform a 180-degree turn in the space of 72 hours. It's amazing how the odd fact thrown into or tossed out of the mix can change the flavour of the pudding.
On Saturday morning most papers reported the urgent search for Ashya, who had been "snatched", "abducted" or at the very least "removed without doctors' consent" by his parents from Southampton General Hospital and could die within hours if not found. The parents, what is more, had "fled abroad".
In case there was any doubt about who was at fault here, we were generally told within the first five pars that the parents were Jehovah's Witnesses. Would we be expected to have been told if they were members of the United Reformed Church or Rastafarians?
The hospital and police may argue that the information was released because the family was known to be devout and might make their way to a Kingdom Hall. Well, let them argue that all they want. The hospital knew exactly where they were going and why. We were told that they were Jehovah's Witnesses to provoke one reaction - which it duly did, as we can see from this genuine, but edited, Facebook stream:
The hospital and the police were busy covering their backsides from the word go. The boy and his mother had been gone from the ward for more than six hours before anyone thought there was anything untoward. Once the alarm was raised the priority - after finding the boy, of course - was to put the parents in the wrong.
A few papers paused to ask whether it was an offence for a parent to take a child from hospital without doctors' approval. We know that you can be sectioned for mental health issues where you might be a danger to yourself or others. But can you be forced to stay in hospital with an acute medical condition?
If you are dissatisfied with the treatment your child is receiving, do you not have the right to remove him or her?
None of these questions was pursued thoroughly on day one, because we as journalists were caught up in the human story and accepted the Southampton doctors' opinion on the medical side of things.
Over the weekend the powers-that-be went into overdrive with ward of court orders, arrest warrants and dire warnings about what would happen to the little boy if he were not returned immediately to Southampton.
If journalists weren't quick enough to ask the right questions, the extended King family were right on the ball when it came to putting their side of the story. We began to see a wider picture. The parents had asked for a specific treatment and told they couldn't have it. It wasn't suitable. Reading between the lines, there had been a growing friction between the family and the hospital - the Kings wanted to take the boy somewhere that would offer the treatment they desired, the hospital started talking about protection orders.
Just what you need to hear when you're desperate to do anything to save your son: "We're doing things our way, just accept it. And if you don't we'll take away your parental rights."
OK, of course the hospital didn't say that (I hope), but that was the message. The arrogance of it. We know best and you have no choice. And when the family decided they did have a choice and they intended to exercise it, the full force of the Establishment was brought out against them.
The hospital knew very well that the family knew how to operate the feeding machine that has been at the centre of the hunt. The hospital knew very well where the family was likely to be heading - the Czech clinic had sent it papers last month, seeking medical background so that it could take over Ashya's care. The hospital knew that Brett King had a property business based in Malaga. There was no mystery here.
There was certainly a concern about Ashya's well-being, but why parade the Jehovah's Witness red herring when there was much more useful information that could have been released?
In the absence of that information, the papers went hard on the religion angle, albeit generally with the caveat "their motive is unclear..." - when, as we now know, it was clear right from the start.
How much do most of us know about the Jehovah's Witnesses' view on medical treatment? That they refuse blood transfusions. But this little boy had had surgery. The Witnesses helped with this statement:
There is absolutely no indication that their decision is in any way motivated by any religious convictions. Jehovah's Witnesses are encouraged to seek the best medical treatment for themselves and their children
By today, references to the family's religious beliefs have all but disappeared from the press coverage. The pack has new quarry: the police. Everyone's sympathy is now with the parents who had been the villains three days ago.
Since Sunday, papers have started to raise questions about the legal aspects of the case, to explain what Ashya's condition is and to look into the treatment that his family is seeking. There is now universal outrage that this sick young lad is being separated from his parents and at the way the couple have been manhandled. The columnists and leader writers are in full cry. People are signing petitions on change.org. The Prime Minister has had his say.
Good. If that leads to the release of the Kings, a reunion with their son and allows them to find a hospital they trust to prolong his life, we'll have played our part.
But it would have been even better if a few questions beyond the family's faith had been put and answered at the outset.
Recommended reading For a view on the legal position in cases such as this, please look at this blog by Peter English
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