The main headline on the front page of yesterday’s Times tells us that “Terrorists are exploiting the ‘right to be forgotten’”. It is a striking headline and, like the Times’ front page story three weeks ago about the police using a “loophole to hack phones”, it is total nonsense.
The story reports the Speech by Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, at the Society of Editors’ conference on Monday of this week. I have already commented on the, frankly, ludicrous claims he made there about human rights and press freedom but I want to concentrate on what was picked up and uncritically reproduced on the front page of a “newspaper of record”.
As part of his ill-focussed and poorly reasoned attack on all things European, Mr Javid criticised the ruling of Luxembourg’s “unelected judges” on the so-called “right to be forgotten”, the judgment in the Google Spain case. He said:
“Criminals are having their convictions airbrushed from history even if they have since committed other, similar crimes.”
Terrorists have ordered Google to cover up stories about their trials”.
It’s that second sentence which the Times made into a front page story the following day without any kind of critical examination.
The first thing that a critical journalist would have pointed out is that the Google Spain judgment gives no one any right to “order” Google to do anything. This raises questions about the Culture Secretary’s basic standards of accuracy. Any half-serious newspaper should have had suspicions over the whole statement, given that glaring error.
More importantly, who are these “terrorists” who merit a Times front page headline? Mr Javid does not identify any. It might be thought that Google (which has vigorously campaigned against the Google Spain judgment since May) would have shouted from the rooftops if any “terrorists” had sought to have links deleted from their index. I attended the London session of the Google Advisory Council on the right to be forgotten on 16 October and during a four hour discussion of the consequences of the ruling, none were mentioned.
So if Sajid Javid did not receive the information from Google, where did he get it from? The terrorists themselves? Or from his own fevered imagination?
But the fundamental point is that the judgement in Google Spain leaves the decision as to whether to remove a link, in the first instance, to Google (and after than to a regulator or a court). And the judgement makes clear that search engines should not remove links from search results if this would be against the public interest. Google have made it clear that they take that duty to ensure that where the public interest in retaining the link in search results overrides the data subject’s interest in its removal very seriously.
Are the minister and the Times saying that after the terrorists “ordered” Google to remove the links they obsequiously obeyed these orders? If so, why has Google escaped criticism? Where is the headline “Internet giant is aiding terrorists”? There is none because, I am sure, it has not happened.
So if it is has not happened, then it is not difficult to see what the problem with honest and accurate reporting is? A headline “Terrorists unsuccessfully try to invoke Court ruling” or does not quite have the same ring. Though ““Minister makes wild and unsubstantiated claim about terrorists in crude attempt to suck up to newspaper editors” would have had its fans.
In truth, this is all complete nonsense. Mr Javid used his speech to flatter the press and conceal the fact that the Government has decided to do nothing at all about either press abuses or police abuse of RIPA. He, correctly, calculated that a few sound bites about terrorism and the importance of press freedom would get him the headlines.
There used to be a time (and there used to be right-leaning press sceptical of state assertions of phantom terror scares) when a Government minister who bandied about the term “helping terrorism” to flog policies removing freedoms from individuals would be exposed by newspapers. But now these newspapers cannot see past their own commercial or political self-interest in colluding with the fiction and the spin.
The Times’ front page story is a disgrace to proper journalism. The privileges of the press are consistently justified by the fact that it needs to “speak truth to power”. Conservative ministers are struggling to avoid proper implementation of the Leveson report precisely because most of the newspapers they hope will support them are failing to speak the truth, and are themselves abusing their power.
Dr Evan Harris is the Associated Director of Hacked Off