On 29 December 2012 The Daily Telegraph published an article under the headline Christians have no right to refuse to work on Sundays.
This has now been shown to be nonsense. The judgment in Mba v London Borough of Merton was released yesterday and is analysed here. Mr Justice Langstaff made entirely clear that the judgment only applies to the individual worker who brought the appeal, not more generally. Here is some inaccurate reporting from David Barrett (remember this by him?), Telegraph Home Affairs correspondent:
A new ruling by a High Court judge… says that Christians have no right to decline working on Sunday as it is not a “core component” of their beliefs. The judgment – which upholds an earlier decision – means that individual Christians do not have any protection from being fired for not working on Sundays.
Compare and contrast, as this blog does, paragraph 3 of the ruling:
We should make it clear at the outset of this Judgment to anyone who expects the conclusion to amount either to a ringing endorsement of an individual’s right not to be required to work on a Sunday on the one hand, or an employer’s freedom to require it on the other, that they will both be disappointed. No such broad general issue arises. The questions raised must be determined in the specific circumstances of this particular case alone.
The difference between saying that a Christian did not have the right in her particular circumstances to refused work on Sundays (which the judgment says) and no Christian has the right to refuse work on a Sunday in any case is very large indeed. Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of discrimination law will have known instantly that the latter option cannot have been right.
I have it on good authority that the judgment was delivered in full, orally, in court before it was published in writing yesterday. So no excuses. If a journalist cannot be there in person to hear a judgment being given, they should either wait to read the published version or make sure they have a very accurate understanding of what it said before writing about it.
It is like a football journalist not attending a match and then reporting on it based on interviews with a few fans of one team. No surprises that the report turns out to be wrong.
Joshua Rozenberg rightly calls for the Employment Appeal Tribunal to publish controversial rulings such as this quicker as “there is little point in publishing this summary after the ruling has been widely reported and debated” (his own analysis is, as usual, spot on). I have made similar points before about the courts’ responsibility to disseminate rulings quickly and in an understandable way.
But the blame does not solely lie with the Tribunal. For whatever reason, whether the Telegraph relied on a biased information from one side, through complete misunderstanding of the law or simple exaggeration, they got it wrong. They will have frightened believers from many faiths and unfairly increased the perception that the courts are anti-religion.
As Rozenberg points out, this was a complex judgment involving the tricky question of what constitutes a ‘core’ belief. Having read it, I think this was actually quite a narrow win for the council, and the Tribunal did get itself into a bit of a tangle over the idea of a ‘core’ belief. But the judge made clear that it any future cases would be decided on their individual facts, and that is the opposite of what was reported.
Being charitable, it could be argued (as it was in the article by someone from Christian Concern, whose own analysis was also wrong) that the ruling will in fact have a wider effect than the judge claimed it would, but the article presents that as the settled view, not just the opinion of campaigners.
Thankfully, when the European Court of Human Rights releases four important religious discrimination judgments on Tuesday, its policy means that nobody will see the judgments before they are released alongside a helpful press summary. This may help, although I doubt it will prevent poor reporting of what the judgments actually say.
Meanwhile, no correction from the Telegraph. If this mistake had been made about an individual, a libel threat would have been made and a correction (probably) printed. But because this is about a legal judgment, despite the number of people it affects, there is little recourse except a complaint to the Press Complaint Commission. Now, there’s an idea.
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