You know those films where a couple spend the first two acts hating each other until, possibly at night when it is raining, they realise they have been in love all along? It seems that following the Leveson Inquiry report, a winter romance is developing between the Mail on Sunday and the Human Rights Act.
In Bombshell by Leveson’s own adviser: His law to gag press is illegal as it breaches Human Rights Act, the Mail reveals an interview with Shami Chakrabarti, director of human rights advocacy organisation Liberty and also advisor to the Leveson Inquiry, in which she argues that any new law that made the government quango Ofcom the ‘backstop regulator’ with sweeping powers to punish newspapers would violate Article 10 of the European Convention On Human Right, which protects free speech (Update: for more, see this post by Hugh Tomlinson QC – he disagrees with Chakrabarti, although also points out she has been misrepresented).
It only seems like a few months ago (actually, it was only a few months ago) that a Mail editorial thundered: Human rights is a charter for criminals and parasites our anger is no longer enough. As Private Eye might say… just fancy that!
To be fair, the Mail has had a sightly more nuanced relationship with human rights than many assume. For example, the newspaper has been at the forefront of important campaigns like that opposing secret trials in civil cases and against the extradition of hacker Gary McKinnon, which was “courageously” blocked on human rights grounds. But the secret trials campaign has been fought on the basis of ‘civil liberties’, not ‘human rights’, and the newspaper has certainly been a more frequent critic than friend of the Human Rights Act, and in particular over issues relating to unpopular minorities such as immigrants.
Lord Justice Leveson had some interesting things to say about newspaper coverage of human rights issues and law in general, which have become rather lost in the (important) debate over statutory regulation. In particular, the Inquiry expressed concern over the reporting of issues relating to minorities, which although a mixed bag was also, on balance, of concern:
It is one thing for a newspaper to take the view that immigration should be reduced, or that the asylum and/or human rights system should be reformed, and to report on true stories which support those political views. It is another thing to misreport stories either wilfully or reckless as to their truth or accuracy, in order to ensure that they support those political views. And it does appear that certain parts of the press do, on occasion, prioritise the political stance of the title over the accuracy of the story. (para 8.48 of Part 2)
That paragraph reflects Lord Neuberger’s famous (on this blog anyway) comment that “It is one thing to disagree with a judgment, to disagree with a law and to campaign to change the law, but it is another thing to misstate what was said in a judgment, or to misstate the law“. On of the examples given by the Inquiry is The Daily Mail’s erroneous report that a judge had allowed an immigrant to remain in the UK because “the right to family life” protected his relationship with his cat (remember Catgate?).
The report goes on:
when assessed as a whole, the evidence of discriminatory, sensational or unbalanced reporting in relation to ethnic minorities, immigrants and/or asylum seekers, is concerning. The press can have significant influence over community relations and the way in which parts of society perceive other parts. While newspapers are entitled to express strong views on minority issues, immigration and asylum, it is important that stories on those issues are accurate, and are not calculated to exacerbate community divisions or increase resentment.
Leveson concluded that a “new regulator will need to address these issues as a matter of priority, the first steps being to amend practice and the Code to permit third party complaints. “
It will be very interesting to see whether a new regulator and Editor’s Code changes things for the better for the reporting of human rights stories, which unsurprisingly often involve unpopular groups such as ethnic minorities, immigrants and asylum seekers, and are therefore prone to slanted reporting in some newspapers such as, let’s face it, the Daily Mail.
This blog has regularly highlighted examples of poor reporting in the Mail (see e.g Daily Mail on the naughty step for dodgy immigration story), Express, Sun and Telegraph which have undoubtedly strayed beyond fair comment on controversial issues and into blatant misrepresentation (see our ‘poor reporting’ category). I highlighted particular examples in my witness statement to the Inquiry.
Hopefully, the Leveson Inquiry and a new regulator will mean that newspapers are more cautious about at least getting the law right in articles about rights. I have to say that I am not hopeful; a new regulator is unlikely to wade into reporting of politically controversial issues, and will not address the structural problem that newspapers no longer tend to employ dedicated legal correspondents.
I hope my pessimism is misplaced. But whatever happens, we can all enjoy the spectacle of the burgeoning but I also expect fleeting romance between two longstanding enemies, the Daily Mail and the Human Rights Act.
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- Is compulsory regulation of the print media compatible with Article 10 ECHR? – Hugh Tomlinson QC
- The Leveson Report is here!
- Leveson: We could be walking into problems with Article 10, European Convention on Human Rights – Charon QC
- Daily Mail on the naughty step for dodgy immigration story
- Immigration judges ‘named and shamed’ by Sunday Telegraph [updated]