Mail finds new love for Human Rights Act

Just fancy that!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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6 thoughts on “Mail finds new love for Human Rights Act

  1. Free speech is or should be the right of every citizen living in a democracy and that right existed in the UK long before the Human Rights Act came into existence.The Mail is correct when blaming judges for totally distorting the Act to satisfy and enact their own agendas.
    An obvious example is Article 8 declaring the right to enjoy a private family life without interference from public authority.An article clearly drafted to protect families from interference from the State.British family court judges however interpret it as a necessary protection for the State from aggrieved families ! Mothers whose babies have been taken at birth are forbidden to go to the media to protest openly under threat of jail for violating the privacy of their newborn babies.It would be comical if it were not so tragic.The press ,like it or not are the only bulwark against tyranny . Unfortunately once the press had revealed that most of our elected representatives were fiddling their expenses some illegally and some via dodgy legal loopholes,it was only a question of time before some of those guilty politicians put in motion measures intended to eventually curb the press and leave politicians and their celebrity cronies free once again ,to fiddle their expenses and for some to lead revolting private lives to their heart’s content !

  2. The press is not free in the UK. Most of the newspapers are owned by 3 to 4 proprietors who dominate the print media. They defend the interests of the ruling class, and therefore for me the position of Liberty and Shami Chakrabarti, is wrong. Where are the demands to democratise the press?

    Are we now to use Human Rights to defend big business?

  3. Chakrabarti’s rant against Leveson, as reported in the Mail, seems likely, in the present climate of anger and disgust at the behaviour of the press, to inflame public opinion against the Human Rights Act. Perhaps, had she been more aware of the extent of public opinion and the way her opinions would be seized on by the press, she would have modified her language accordingly and have received a more appropriate reception.

    Members of the public are not stupid and are well able to see implications from her observations. It must appear to many people that it important to regulate education in the form of OFSTED and communications in the form of OFCOM yet allow newspapers the freedom to construct articles that deliberately misrepresent and deceive.

    Maybe that was not Chakrabarti’s intention but it seems likely to have that effect. It is most disappointing.

  4. ..Finished! ..

    ..the Sun actually scooped the DM viz-a -viz embracing the HRA way back in February according to the Independent (http://www.theweek.co.uk/uk-news/sun-crisis/45392/sun-journalists-show-sudden-interest-human-rights#) – after the first dawn raids during Operation Elveden e.g. one of those asked by the Police to reveal his sources, Fergus Shanahan, who had previously ridiculed the HRA, urging in 2008 that it should be “torn up”. Among other headlines unearthed by the Indie’s researchers are: “The Sun says no to soft justice” and “Court of Human Frights”…

  5. “Members of the public are not stupid and are well able to see implications from her observations.” Could have fooled me !!!

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