The Monstering of Human Rights

22 September 2014 by

On Friday 19 September I spoke at a very interesting conference at the University of Liverpool on Human Rights in the UK Media: Representation and Reality. My talk was entitled The Monstering of Human Rights. You can download it by clicking here (PDF). It is also embedded below.

As always, comments are welcome. There is quite a lot in there tying together some of the themes I have been writing about over the past few years. As a number of people pointed out in Liverpool, it is too easy to point to errors in human rights reporting as proof that all criticisms of the human rights system are bogus, which is clearly wrong. But nonetheless, misinformation and exaggeration is an important feature of the public debate on human rights and it is interesting to consider why that might be the case, and – a question which has troubled me over the past few years – how to stop it happening.

I expect the issue of human rights reform will arise again now that the Scottish referendum process has concluded and the political parties are setting out their agendas for 2015. It seems pretty clear that the Conservative Party will promise to repeal the Human Rights Act but what they will do in relation to the European Convention on Human Rights is still very much an unknown. My expectation is that they will not promise to withdraw from the ECHR. Not yet, anyway. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are likely to retain the existing system, with a few tweaks. But whoever wins the election, there is a huge amount of work to be done to repair the reputation of human rights laws in the UK and convince the public that they are, on balance, a good thing.

PS. if any kind soul would like to turn the PDF version into a HTML linked blog-ready post, I would be eternally grateful! Email me if you would be interested, you would of course get full credit in the ensuing post/s.

View this document on Scribd


  1. A superb post — but does it really end with tabloids that want to pry into private lives and governments that don’t want the law looking over their shoulders?

    Daniel Isenberg, writing on this blog, noted that “the House of Lords decided […] to block plans to allow employees to trade certain rights (including unfair dismissal, redundancy, training and flexible working) for shares in their company”. Yes, the government was bending to commercial interests and actually hoped to entice employees to sell their human rights for a mess of pottage.

    And it’s not just employees who are threatened by moves to curtail human rights, but also the clients of privatised social services. Sanchita Hosali and Helen Wildbore have deplored the loophole that exempted private providers from having to abide by section 6 of the HRA. [2] And Allen Norman has noted that “human rights have been airbrushed out” of social work. [3]

    Cui bono? Providers such as companies or charities that have taken over many services previously provided by the state may find it more profitable if they don’t have to treat their clients in accordance with human rights legislation. And for faith-based social agencies there is the added incentive to deny their vulnerable clients the human rights protections that forbid proselytising. [4] In fact, a major provider, the Church of England, made clear in 2009 its fundamental opposition to human rights. It called legislation to enforce them a “tool of secular liberalism” and even warned Christians not to base arguments on human rights. [5]

    In other words, any government which favours employers over employees, and which wants to let religious groups take over social services would seem to have a special interest in vilifying and ultimately curtailing those pesky human rights.


  2. BobM says:

    A worthy, lawyerly, comment piece.
    But politically deficient?

    The expression “distraction policies” is new, but the idea has been around for a long time.
    -Government recognises that some people are concerned by homelessness and the absence of non-“market” solutions: government solution, the bedroom tax..
    -Government recognises that it hasn’t an answer to public concern on net immigration: solution, fine landlords who don’t check the status of tenants…
    -Government doesn’t like any legal restraint upon its wider neo-liberal agenda: solution, blame “Europe” and/or the HRA for anything and everything.

    Adam is too civilised a chap to be investigating political debate-framing.

  3. Captain Sensible says:

    A well written and interesting speech, but one where I feel an opportunity was missed.

    Reading through it there was a clear narrative that the newspapers, general media and, via these organisations views, the public were being mislead on all things ECHR and HRA. In fact the speech became a little repetitive in this regard with the point made over and over again, which did spoil it a little. The examples used were pretty fair and pointed out the negativity well, although with regards to The Sun and its 3 out of 5 losses claim I was surprised you included this as in your original blog I though the readers gave a pretty good defence of the Sun. Each of you used essentially the same statistics in a different way producing differing views. Was the Sun wrong to do so? I and others thought not.

    So what of the missed opportunity?

    As I read on I couldn’t help but feel that you and your views were also partially to blame for the public perception. You briefly mention in the body that the ECHR has faults and you finally mention these in your conclusion. On each occasion you had the opportunity to expand and provide some sort of balance, but sadly did not do so. For the casual reader it was perhaps an opportunity to see some critical thinking on how to improve the legislation, the quality and experience of the judges and the system as a whole, as these form a major part of the negative public perception.

    There is also another critical point missed. The ECHR was formed in the wake in the atrocities of war and the brutal suppression of the citizens of some countries, but to the public the ECHR and HRA have morphed into something completely different. Do I as a British citizen feel oppressed, brutalised or scared to express my views? Certainly not, and herein lies a serious disconnect with the public view of what the ECHR should be for and what it is actually used for. Some of the cases are an anathema for the public, such as votes for prisoners. Many would take the view that you forego your rights when you commit a crime against a society which gave you those rights. It seems there are never ending appeals, one after another and the perception is the criminals, terrorists, murderers etc just keep appealing until they win. All this largesse is paid for out of the public purse of course.

    Do newspapers make the news or report it? That’s the perennial question we try to answer. Either way politicians will reflect on what news is and how that news is perceived by the public. If, in all sincerity they are trying to legislate for the good, but find the ECHR and judiciary constantly overruling them (tanks on the lawn), there is bound to be some friction.

    The opportunity was to say to the audience that the ECHR is not perfect, there are issues and problems, and here are some of the poor judgements it has made against governments all over Europe, but that’s no excuse for media exaggeration and myth. Instead we had a myopic diatribe against newspapers, politicians and anyone else who dares criticise this institution or full report the judgement to your satisfaction.

    1. jshollis says:

      Captain Sensible, I’m not sure I agree that the decisions of the ECtHR should necessarily accord with public opinion. Surely one of the reasons for human rights legislation is to protect those who do not have the support of the majority. In fact, it is likely then that decisions will not be popular. If they were popular, the infringing act would probably not have been carried out in the first place.

      Human rights legislation was put in place in recognition of the flaws of uninhibited majority rule. It creates judicial protection against state (and majority) excesses. It is therefore essential that the decisions are well reasoned and well communicated so as to convince a likely skeptical public. The problem of communication that Adam is complaining about is therefore critical and deserves to be highlighted – without getting into the nitty gritty of individual poor judgments or legislative changes. The problem of communication is in fact evident even from your comment, which discusses “votes for prisoners” – the ECtHR has only judged that the blanket ban on votes for prisoners is a breach of human rights – not that all prisoners should have the vote. On the former characterisation, the decision may be more palatable to the general public.

  4. wagaba1 says:

    Your courageous efforts to take on the ‘mighty’ Sun empire and other unscrupulous media regarding matters of Human Rights is a huge resource and act of inspiration for many of us who admire your works in literature and lectures on human rights. Thank you very much

  5. Judith Perle says:

    What a succinct and powerful piece. I’ve just completed a masters in human rights at Birkbeck, and although I’m not a lawyer, I find the generally-held misconceptions about human rights both baffling and infuriating. I’ll circulate your speech widely….

    Many thanks,

    Judith Perle

  6. James Lawson XIX says:

    Nice one Adam! I have linked it to every social media site I know.

    For those interested in the dynamics of the way in which the UK Press operates, may I recommend a reading of Nick Davies’s book: “Flat Earth News” which is also available on audiobooks (unabridged). You will never pick up a newspaper again!

  7. The judges ruin human rights with perverse interpretations !Article 8 promises us a private family life undisturbed by public authority.Clearly intended to protect the family from State intrusion. Judges prefer to interpret it as protection of the State FROM the family ! Jailing any parents daring to protest publicly using their own names,when their children are taken by the State on the grounds that heir children’s privacy has been breached !

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