The Sun just keeps getting it wrong on human rights

4 August 2014 by

Sun Wrong AgainWith the May 2015 General Election looming, the battle for the future of human rights in the UK is hotting up. The Prime Minister has just sacked his long-standing Attorney General apparently because he disagreed with a mooted Tory manifesto policy which would, he rightly suggested, breach the UK’s international law obligations.

Meanwhile, over on what used to be Fleet Street,we can expect plenty of human rights misinformation and misrepresentation, as per usual. The Sun, a longterm offender, has been at it again with two recent articles. I thought it would be useful to respond in a bit of detail as they contain a number of common misrepresentations. And because they are behind a paywall, the usual army of Twitter fact checkers are left somewhat powerless.

The first article, published on 27 July 2014, was entitled “It’s time to stop crazy human rights rulings from European judges“. It reported that Prime Minister David Cameron will “make an overhaul of human rights laws a centrepiece of his next election manifesto“. Here are six quotes from the article, explaining why they are inaccurate or cheekily provide only half of the picture:

1. “Britain has lost more than 200 cases in the European Court of Human Rights, at a cost of £4.4million to taxpayers.” There are two key statistics missing here to provide proper context: first, the figure is over taken from cases in a period of 15 years, so the true cost is relatively low, particularly given that it includes costs and damages. Second, that the UK wins around 98% of cases brought against it at the Court – see my post.

2. It’s about not being able to deport an illegal immigrant who has fathered children here because of his “right to family life” even though he is playing no part in their upbringing“: This is a domestic Upper Tribunal case, not a European Court of Human Rights one.

3. “The original European Convention on Human Rights was designed to counterbalance the dictatorships, in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union“: Wrong. The original ECHR was drafted in the 1950s after the fall of Nazism so obviously was not intended to counterbalance the dictatorships. If that were the case it would mean that, once they fell, the ECHR would be redundant – hence the slip. The true position is that the ECHR was drafted in order to protect Western European against Communism and prevent the rise of other illiberal regimes – see my post on the history of the ECHR.

4.THE European Court stopped a British judge imposing a whole-life tariff on Ian McLoughlin. Totally wrong. The European Court of Human Rights in the Vinter case ruled that the UK’s system of whole life tariffs breached human rights. For a brief period sentencing judges did not know whether they could impose Whole Life Orders. Then, in February 2014, the English Court of Appeal in McLoughlin, R v [2014] EWCA Crim 188 said that in fact they could.

5. ITALIAN teenager Learco Chindamo stabbed to death headmaster Philip Lawrence outside his London school… Ministers wanted to deport him but a hearing ruled his right to family life prevents him being kicked out“. This is inaccurate for reasons I have discussed before  Chindamo raised his human right to family life but his deportation was blocked by EU movement law.6.

6.A CONVICTED paedophile was awarded £5,496 for “distress and frustration” he suffered awaiting trial. Strasbourg judges said the four-year proceedings against Rupert Massey, jailed for abusing three boys, were a breach of his human rights”. Wrong. He was awarded €4,000 in 2004, that is around £3,180.

The second article was published today, entitled “HEUman Rights“, with the longer title being “EU Human Rights Laws stop 745 foreign lags from being deported”.
Can you guess what my criticism is going to be? That’s right! The article was about the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights, neither of which is connected to the European Union. The Human Rights Act is a domestic law passed by our own Parliament and the ECHR is an international treaty which the UK signed before the EU existed.

The worst part is that The Sun was reprimanded by the Press Complaints Commission over a similar error just last year, and promised, as part of a settlement with the PCC, to “alert its staff to the issue and incorporate it into its training program“. At the time, I emailed The Sun offering to provide that training. but received no response. The PCC made a good point then which applies even more now that we are closer to both the General Election and possible EU membership referendum:

It is an important role of newspapers and magazines to publicise and analyse judicial rulings, but this public interest is served only insofar as such reports inform rather than mislead. While a headline, by its nature, can only ever summarise, it was inaccurate for the subheadline of the article to have attributed to the European Union responsibility for a decision by domestic courts based on the European Convention on Human Rights… This is a clear failure to take appropriate care over the accuracy of the coverage and a breach of the Editors Code, which was particularly significant at a time when the roles of both the EU and the Convention were a matter of major public debate

Obviously, The Sun have not learned their lesson and its 13.6 million weekly readers are still being poorly served.

If the Tories are truly going to put human rights reform at the centre of their election manifesto, then it is up to those who know what they are talking about, such as Dominic Grieve, to tell the UK public the truth about human rights. Unfortunately, it is clear that some MPs and newspapers cannot be trusted to do so. I fear this is going to get worse before it gets better, but in the meantime I will do my best to call out the worst cases.

If you would like to complain to the Press Complaints Commission (whilst it still exists),  just click here. It does sometimes make a difference.

15 comments


  1. Gavin Steele says:

    Grateful, Adam, for your corrections. But, being a little brutal, does this do much good?

    Your excellent blog has around 32,000 followers – and is probably read by thousands more, many of whom (we might imagine) belong to something of a legal elite that is already familiar with this kind of tabloid misreporting and need little convincing of your arguments. Compare that to the Sun’s 2.2 million – and that doesn’t include its growing online readership – many of whom, uninterested in legal details, will never know they’ve been misled.

    You yourself have shown how even determined efforts to raise inaccuracies with the PCC have resulted in tiny corrections, buried on the inside pages, many months after the original transgression, in language that only barely fulfils the terms requested by the PCC. It’s pretty thin pickings.

    And even then, as the Sun’s cynical propagandists know, a handful of obscure legal facts are unlikely to change hearts and minds – it’s the steady drumbeat of prejudice, a set of skewed facts consistently and neatly packaged in article after article over a long period, that does the real damage.

    It’s clear to me that a brutal “information war” has been under way for some years now – led to the charge by the Sun, the Daily Mail and (increasingly) the Daily Telegraph, in cahoots with some very media-savvy politicos – and we’re losing it hands down.

    All we can do is keep re-stating the facts – but if, as we are told, Cameron is to make human rights reform a “main plank” of his election manifesto, is belated fact-checking going to be enough? How can we get going the full-throated national debate on the Convention we really need ahead of the 2015 election?

    1. Adam Wagner says:

      Gavin, no offence taken. I agree with you. We are hopeless mismatched. Ultimately, I have almost no doubt that the Mail, Sun, Express and Telegraph will win this war and take no prisoners. But we can keep trying!

    2. Of course the Mirror, Indy, ‘Gruniad’ would never get their facts wrong would they ? These bastions of the left are the deliverers of truth and justice…..er…..not.

      As an oppressed minion tired of having no say in decisions made by unelected judges, many of whom come from countries with far worse HR records than the UK, and often with no judicial experience, I’m pleased that the government will at last make HR legislation it’s prime target.

      I think most sensible Britons feel that we should have authority in our own country and courts and not be undermined by a distant unelected elite.

      There is a good article on line from a lawyer on how HR legislation is being used and abused particularly by the EU judges who seem to interpret the legislation in whatever manner they see fit, even in some cases ignoring guidelines and seemingly extending the meaning of clauses into areas where they were never intended for use.

      Sorry can’t give you a link, but if you come across it have a read. I’m sure it will offend your left wing sensibilities, but please do have a look.

  2. Captain Sensible says:

    I agree with Simon. You are being a little disingenuous with your point. Particularly point 6 where the amount is wrong but the central fact that a paedophile won a payout due to a perceived human rights breach is correct. Unfortunately this type of judgement is alienating the public and bringing legislation and the ECHR into disrepute.

    1. Adam Wagner says:

      How was I disingenuous with the point? They almost doubled the amount he was awarded. That is all I said.

      1. Captain Sensible says:

        You were disingenuous by focusing on the amount as an example of the Sun’s exaggeration, whilst ignoring the fact that the Sun’s bigger issue was the use of human rights legislation by a paedophile and the payment made to him. I think everyone noticed you were stretching a point and ignoring the real issue.

        1. Adam Wagner says:

          I’m not sure the focus on getting the damages figure wrong could sensibly be said to be disingenuous, Captain Sensible.

          1. Captain Sensible says:

            You make my point for me yet again. Any comment on the bigger issue or shall we ignore it and move on ?

  3. Simon Carne says:

    Looks like the Sun is being pretty silly again. But is the ice you are skating on thick enough to take the weight of your point 2?

    It may well have been a UK court (the Upper Tribunal) which made the decision. But was the underlying legal reasoning forced upon the tribunal as a result of law/precedent which the UK government would be able to remove were it not for whichever European treaty the Sun is attacking this week? You don’t say.

    1. Adam Wagner says:

      I had a feeling someone would suggest that – it’s a very thin point, as the article was aimed at the ECHR and the decision was painted as a decision by the ECtHR.

      Judges will continue to make decisions which offend principle (particularly at first sight) even if the HRA is repealed and we leave the EHCR. Courts will still need to decide complex family law issues and also whether people should be deported or not.

      1. Simon Carne says:

        What a strange reply to my challenge! I asked whether the underlying legal reasoning was forced upon the tribunal as a result of the UK being party to a European treaty … and could, therefore, be changed for future cases if the UK withdrew from the relevant treaty.

        Of course, we will still look to tribunals. And tribunals may surprise us, offend us or even make mistakes. But the legilsation they are charged with enforcing would (or could) be different.

        1. Adam Wagner says:

          Simon – I was replying to the gist of your comment, which was if we leave Strasbourg then these kind of decisions would no longer be made, with the “kind” being decisions which offend common sense.

          But, to be precise, you are correct that if we remove human rights protections in the UK then the underlying architecture underlying that decision would be gone.

          1. Simon Carne says:

            Oh dear. I don’t want to have an internet squabble with you, Adam, but I really didn’t say (or think) anything of the sort.

            As to the first paragraph of your response above, my point was that the UK Parliament would be free to decide whether it wants UK courts to continue making decisions along the current lines or along different lines. I didn’t predict what that decision would be.

            As to your second paragraph, I certainly didn’t suggest that a UK government would “remove human rights protections”. I can’t see that happening from any of the parties which currently have a chance of a forming a government. I do, however, think a more informed discussion would take place (from a variety of sources) if Parliament had the authority to legislate in this area. And I suspect there would be some carefully thought through adjustments, whilst remaining within the framework of the basic human rights that currently exist.

  4. Since when has the Sun ever let FACTS get in the way of an inflammaTORY story?

  5. jon says:

    I’d just like to expand on the Learco Chindamo point, for the benefit of anyone here not aware. The EU free movement laws are really a creature of our own Parliament: the European Communities Act 1972 revocably committing us to the scheme laid out in the Treaties, of free movement of workers, goods, services, and capital. It was well known then that restrictions on free movement of workers (besides for sectoral labour imbalances) could only be lawfully justified on the grounds of serious and imminent danger from that person (or other grave public policy or public health grounds, e.g. the Geert Wilders case).

    Chindamo was judged to be not a threat. So the idea – which you will hear again and again – that EU law somehow requires us to accommodate people who are dangerous, is completely false.

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