Last night I gave the annual Human Rights Lecture for the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Wales office.
My chosen topic was access to justice, human rights and fake news. I tried to sum up some of my experiences of setting up this blog and RightsInfo, made a probably ill-advised foray into cognitive psychology, and also gave some modest (and non-exhaustive!) proposals for what the human rights community could be doing to make things better.
Thank you for the EHRC for inviting me, to Cardiff University for their very gracious hosting and the audience who were really engaged and asked some difficult questions!
You can watch here or below. Comments most welcome.
On yesterday’s Newsnight (from 7 minutes 20 seconds in), Britain’s foremost legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg revealed that he resigned as the Telegraph’s legal editor in 2007 after the news desk sexed up a human rights story with false information.
The story is still on the Telegraph’s website here. It was a report of the 2007 House of Lords decision in Secretary of State for Defence v Al-Skeini & Ors  UKHL, a case about whether the Human Rights Act applied to actions of the British Army in Iraq. The House of Lords ruled that the Act did apply in British detention facilities, but that it did not apply in the streets of occupied Basra. There is an excellent summary of the case by Rozenberg here.
Even by the usual brazen standards of human rights reporting, this correction from The Daily Mail stands out. Obviously, we weren’t meant to take Richard Littlejohn’s August 2014 comment piece seriously, it being semi-rabid comment bait, but surely the article should have included a health warning to that effect?
In”seriousness”, the Mail’s response to the false claim that “Others have won the ‘right’ to heroin and gay porn behind bars” is pathetic. The claim which has been corrected was not presented as a joke and it would not have been understood as one. As it happens, Littlejohn was probably referring to the longstanding human rights myth that a serial killer, Dennis Nilsen, was allowed to receive hardcore gay porn in jail thanks to human rights law. His case was in actual fact refused permission to proceed in the High Court – page 30 of this government report gives more detail:
Dennis Nilsen’s application was refused by the single judge at the permission stage. He did not establish that there was any arguable case that a breach of his human rights had occurred, nor that the prison’s rules were discriminatory. He also failed to receive any greater access to such materials as a result. The failure of his application at the first hurdle was not widely reported, nor his further failure on renewal.
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.
The Sun have printed another correction today in relation to its misleading human rights reporting. The correction, on page 2, can be read online or to the right of this post.
The correction was the outcome of a complaint I made about this article – I posted on it here. The main part of the correction relates to the entirely false claim that “The European Court stopped a British judge imposing a whole-life tariff on Ian McLoughlin”. The reality is that although judges were unsure whether they could impose the orders following Vinter v UK in the European Court of Human Rights, the Court of Appeal clarified in February 2014 that they definitely could. The Sun have now admitted that was the case.
I am happy that the correction has been made although as I have said before, the damage has to a large extent been done as – let’s be honest – how many people read the clarifications and corrections box (which is located immediately adjacent to the eye-catching Page 3…).
But what I found most interesting about the process, which was started by the Press Complaints Commission and concluded by its post-Leveson successor, the Indepenndent Press Standards Orgaisation (IPSO), was the initial response to my complaint (PDF here) by The Sun’s Ombudsman, Philippa Kennedy OBE, which I thought was needlessly aggressive and demonstrates a worrying approach to this issue. I will select a few choice quotes:
According to page 8 of this document, there have been 22,065 applications against UK 1959-2013. That means that 22,065 people or so have brought cases against the UK. Of those cases, there have been 297 resulting in a violation.
I am no statistician but 297 as a percentage of 22,065 is not “3 out of 5”. It is in fact 1.35%. Less than 2 in 100.
Updated | Here is a good example of how human rights myths spread. In October 2013 the Daily Mail and other newspapers published some totally misleading and inaccurate figures about European Court of Human Rights damages. The following month, after a complaint and a slap on the wrist from the Press Complaints Commission, the Mail corrected its figures – the full story is here.
Last year for instance figures released in the House of Commons Library showed that murderers, paedophiles and rapists had been given £4.4million of British taxpayers’ money because of rulings by the ECHR. Abu Qatada himself received £2,500 before he was deported as compensation for what was deemed his unlawful detention.
With 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 headline was “Ministers to block ‘right to marry’ in EU backlash“. Apparently the Government has “vowed to block a fresh push to introduce new EU human rights, such as the right to marry and the right to collective bargaining, into Britain“. And as the Times’ political editor Francis Elliot (not to be confused with the generally sound legal correspondent Frances Gibb) reported:
The charter enshrines a host of rights not found in other declarations, including personal, work and family relations. One of them is a proposed “right to marry and found a family”.
The only problem is that… the right to “marry and found a family” already exists in the European Convention on Human Rights. It’s in Article 12. It has been there since the UK signed up to the ECHR in 1953. Here it is:
The Daily Mail has belatedly “corrected” its front page story on human rights damages, over a month after it appeared on 7 October 2013. Early last month I blogged on the original bogus article, which was so poor it generated a response from the ordinarily placid Council of Europe.
I have quote-pincered “corrected” as despite the newspaper’s actions, the damage is already done. A month has passed, which in social media time might as well be million years. People have moved on. Another human rights myth is implanted in the collective consciousness, and no sad little correction is going to dislodge a front page headline.
And to make things worse, the story was amplified by a whole host of other newspapers which picked it up without bothering to check the facts, including the Telegraph (corrected) and Daily Star (as yet uncorrected).
What really rankles about this story is how wrong it was.
The piece is about the case of Sabure Malik, a British investment banker who was stopped by police in 2010 at Heathrow on his way back from an organised package tour to undertake the Hajj. Full details of his case, which is supported by Liberty, are in the Euoprean Court of Human Rights’ admissibility decision here. It was granted permission to proceed in May 2013, well before the David Miranda controversy which took place in August.
“Human Right to Make a Killing”, screamed the Daily Mail last week, publishing details from a “damning dossier” which showed “Judges in Strasbourg paid out £4.4m to some of Britain’s worst criminals”.
The figures were taken from the response to a Parliamentary question put by Conservative MP Philip Davies. You can hear me debating him about the issue on BBC Radio 5 Live by clicking here – from 1:41:15 – watch out for the ‘human rights gravy train’ steaming into the debate around half way through.
Updated – headline now corrected | Remember when The Sun was reprimanded by the Press Complaints Commission for muddling up the European Union and our local Court of Appeal in a story about a human rights judgment? You probably should because it happened just two weeks ago.
Well, I am delighted to report that following my post, the European Commission, which represents the interests of the European Union, complained to the Press Complaints Commission and the complaint has now been upheld. There was a “clear failure to take appropriate care over the accuracy of the coverage and a breach of the Editor’s 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“.
Another title for this post might have been “they did not want to understand the judgment.”
In light of recent shenanigans, it seems apt to reproduce the first five paragraphs of the 25-year-old Court of Appeal judgment in (1) Nadarajah Vilvarajah, (2) Vaithialingham Skandarajah v Secretary of State For the Home Department 1990 WL 754859 (Update – download from BAILII here), which I was alerted to by a colleague. Sir John Donaldson, then Master of the Rolls, complains in withering style about media coverage of a recent judgment. The last line is the best, although a little depressing.
Lessons learned? The more things change, the more they stay the same. Political posturing over immigration and asylum law long predated the Human Rights Act. And Law in Action was as good then as it is now.
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