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.
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  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. “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 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.
This post originally appeared on the UK Human Rights Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks.