Human rights

Reforming Britain’s Human Rights Laws: ‘Gotcha Part II’

The following article has been written by Ian Turner, Senior Lecturer in Law at UCLan.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my previous posts about human rights in the UK and attempts to reform, say, either the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) and/or the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). It may be recalled that I attended a conference on human rights and the media at the University of Liverpool at the end of September. There many contributors identified several news stories discussing human rights that had either been wrong, trivialised the subject, distorted the truth, given undue prominence to the rights of unfavourable victims, and given little attention to the rights of favourable victims.

human rights act 1998

Continuing this theme of human rights protection, I was invited down to London at the beginning of December, to participate in a Eurorights seminar at the EC Commission in the UK. In attendance was eg Professor Fiona de Londres, the University of Durham; Professor Aoife Nolan, the University of Nottingham; and Professor Steve Peers, the University of Essex; as well as Adam Wagner, a barrister at One Crown Office Row and the Editor of the well respected ‘UK Human Rights Blog’; and Clive Baldwin, Senior Legal Advisor at Human Rights Watch. Because of word constraints I am unable to report every paper that was presented at the seminar, so will concentrate on the keynote speech by Jon Danzig, a freelance journalist and film maker.

Jon had analysed reporting of the HRA and/or the ECHR by the Daily Mail. He said that the Daily Mail’s online version was the world’s most popular internet newspaper, with a readership of about 185 million. As a case study Jon referred to an online Mail story about immigrants from Eastern Europe coming to this country: ‘Sold out! Flights and buses full as Romanians and Bulgarians head for the UK’ (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2531440/Sold-Flights-buses-Romanians-Bulgarians-head-UK.html). The premise of the report was that travel from these two countries had been booked up because of the large numbers of people wanting to come here to claim social security. Jon said that this story had been shared 58,000 times.

Jon had rang the airlines and bus companies named in the report, to see whether they were indeed full on the days in question. He was informed that they were not – there had been dozens and dozens of free seats. Jon had also tracked down the individuals quoted in the report and found that they had come to the UK for legitimate reasons: they had come here to take up jobs offered to them overseas.

Not having had much luck with the readers’ complaints process at the Daily Mail, Jon complained about the report to the independent Press Complaints Commission (PCC).  Under the PCC’s Code of Conduct a claim against a newspaper could be upheld for one of 13 reasons. First, Jon tried ‘discrimination’ – the unfair way Bulgarians and Romanians had been depicted in the story – but this claim was rejected as the Code did not prohibit discrimination against groups, only individuals. Jon was eventually successful in his claim on the grounds of inaccuracy but, being a voluntary organisation, the PCC was unable to force the Daily Mail to correct the story. (The PCC no longer exists, having been replaced by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). But IPSO resides in the same building as the old PCC, has the same staff as the old PCC and has the same company number as the old PCC.)

The author teaches Article 10 of the ECHR, freedom of expression, to his second years, studying LW2012 Human Rights in the UK. In a recent seminar the students believed that expression was a fundamental right in a democracy for eg challenging the state and holding it to account. But with the right came responsibilities, that is, the freedom should not be abused. With its vast readership, and therefore its ability to influence significantly the opinions of those accessing its online pages, surely the Daily Mail should be much more responsible in its reporting of, say, human rights issues? But then of course a much more dispassionate and objective approach by the newspaper is not going to prove popular with its readers!

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