Today is Blog Action Day and the theme is human rights. To mark the occasion, BIHR’s Sophie Howes reflects on the role of the media in informing the public about human rights and calls for more of a balance when it comes to reporting human rights news stories.
Paul Dacre, Editor of the Daily Mail wrote a piece in last week’s Guardian entitled ‘Why is the left obsessed by the Daily Mail?’ The article is a response to the Ralph Milliband affair (where the paper claimed Ed Milliband’s father ‘hated Britain’) and puts forward the view that the widespread criticism of the Mail article was the latest attempt by the left to place limits on papers that dare to criticise:
The hysteria that followed is symptomatic of the post-Leveson age in which any newspaper which dares to take on the left in the interests of its readers risks being howled down by the Twitter mob who the BBC absurdly thinks represent the views of real Britain.
There was a bit of a furor following the Mail article about Ralph Milliband, but unlike Dacre I don’t see the BBC and Twitter as being solely responsible for this. I think the widespread media coverage was generated by a reaction from the general public and touched on something much deeper, that whilst prompted by the Milliband story was actually a response to a much wider problem. People are sick of reading misinformed and unrepresentative media reports on a whole range of issues, including human rights.
The public tell us they’re fed up with mis-reporting
There is a huge amount of misinformation about human rights reported in the media, and it is having a far more serious impact than many people realise. No one paper is responsible for this, and the media are not alone in this, some of our most senior political leaders are also perpetuating these myths. But the impact is still the same, most people get their information about human rights from the media, the media human rights story is always a bad one, leading many people to conclude that somehow human rights are a bad thing.
BIHR has been touring the country holding free to attend community workshops on human rights as part of our annual Human Rights Tour. We spend time at these events ‘fact checking’ stories about human rights in the media, to give people the opportunity to find out the facts behind human rights stories they read in the media. Here are our top three human rights ‘media myths’:
What the media said: The European Court of Human Rights want to give all prisoners in the UK the right to vote
The facts: The Court ruled that a blanket ban preventing all prisoners from voting (a law that dates back to Victorian times) needs to be looked at again and a more proportionate response is needed. It’s up to Parliament to decide what this looks like and which prisoners would be granted the vote.
What the media said: A migrant got to stay in the UK because he had a cat by using his right to a private and family life (Article 8 of the Human Rights Act)
The facts: A migrant was allowed to stay in the UK because he had demonstrated he was in a long term relationship with someone who resided in the UK. One of the pieces of evidence they used to demonstrate the relationship was real was the fact they owned a cat together (as per the Home Office guidelines). Owning a cat was not the reason the man was allowed to remain in the UK.
What the media said: The Human Rights Act is a charter for criminals, putting the rights of the criminal ahead of the rights of the victim.
The facts: Everyone in the UK is protected by the Human Rights Act. This means people who commit offences can have some of their rights limited or restricted but they still have basic rights and freedoms because they are human. It also means the Human Rights Act protects vulnerable groups such as older people, and victims of crime. In fact Keir Starmer, Director of the Crown Prosecution Service recently said in a media interview that the Human Rights Act has been ‘a real asset to victims and witnesses.’
Stories all about Human Rights – not that you’d know from much reporting
And here are our top three examples of the positive human rights stories we don’t see in the press:
The Mid Staffordshire hospital scandal was a gross abuse of human rights, where people died and were severely mistreated following extreme neglect and poor treatment in Stafford hospital. This extreme lack of dignity and respect isn’t just about values, it was also an abuse of legally protected human rights. So far over 100 of the families affected by the scandal used the Human Rights Act to get justice, to secure some accountability from those in power. Yet among the many headlines and column inches rightly generated by the Mid-Staff situation how many times do you remember reading about how important the Human Rights Act was for victims and their families?
Our Home Secretary made no bones about relying on the Human Rights Act to prevent the deportation of Gary McKinnon to the United States to face charges of computer hacking. Theresa May said ‘Mr McKinnon’s extradition would give rise to such a high risk of him ending his life that a decision to extradite would be incompatible with Mr McKinnon’s human rights’. The role of the Human Rights Act in preventing this deportation -of a man with learning disabilities – can be contrasted with other deportation cases which more often than not seem to call for scrapping such protections
The Human Rights Act has made the lives of thousands of people better, we just don’t read about it in the Press. Whether it is victims of violence being protected from cross-examination by their alleged attacker, or people with a mental health problem accessing their rights in hospital, there are hundreds of examples of the Human Rights Act making a positive impact to our lives.
At BIHR this is exactly what our practical work does – we help people, including those in public services and government, to take human rights beyond the courtrooms and into our everyday life. The Human Rights Act is not a magic wand, but it is an important law which can have real meaning in our everyday lives to make sure the Government plays fair and we are all treated with a bit of dignity and respect. Our work shows how the Human Rights Act helped Lisa and Ben get answers when they discovered unexplained injuries to their son during his hospital stay. Or how Mr and Mrs Driscoll, turned to the Human Rights Act to stop them from being split up and sent to separate care homes. Or the carers we work with in North-West England who can now stand up for themselves and their loved ones to get a fairer deals which makes sure everyone is treated with a bit of respect. Yet how many times do we read about these stories? It seems good human rights news just isn’t news – but is that true? Are we – the great British public – really just interested in bad news and sensationalism?
The British public are a diverse bunch and no one media outlet, be it the Mail, Twitter, the BBC or otherwise represents the views of us all. Instead what we need is a more balanced view in our media of what human rights are, and what they aren’t, so the British public can engage in the important debates about the future of our human rights law that is going on at the heart of Government. After all, human rights belong to us, and it should be up to the people to decide their fate – but let’s at least try and make sure we’re having an informed debate. As things heat upover implementing the Leveson Inquiry and those in the media uphappy with proposed regulation models turn to our human rights laws to protect free speech maybe the time is coming for more balanced reporting on these issues.