At the inaugural Media & Public Policy Lecture (Media Standards Trust and King’s Policy Institute), Baroness Helena Kennedy QC examined the relationship between the tabloid press in the UK and the Human Rights Act 1998. This article will examine in further detail some of the key issues that were raised.
It is no secret that the right wing press in the UK dislikes the Human Rights Act; it is lambasted by the tabloids on various fronts. Some refer to it as a ‘Charter for criminals and parasites’ (The Mail on Sunday) expressing distaste at those who seem to frequently invoke the act.  Others challenge the extent to which the European Court of Human Rights interferes in domestic affairs, referring to the ‘Human Wrongs Act’ (The Express). Finally the press seem to focus disproportionately on extradition and deportation, with numerous references being made to ‘Inhuman Rights’ (The Sun).
It is understandable why there is such outrage when some of the rulings are examined. According to the courts all prisoners must be given the right to vote, including murderers and rapists. According to the courts Abu Qatada could not be deported despite Jordanian assurances that he would not be tortured. According to the courts Mohammed Ibrahim, who knocked down a young child and left her to die, cannot be deported because of his own children who live in the UK. According the courts certain dangerous individuals cannot be made to leave the country because they own a pet cat. Considering this string of ludicrous decisions it is not difficult to see why the press object so strongly to the Human Rights Act.
However in reality these claims are wrong. They either completely misinterpret the judgements of the court or grossly inflate the issues, provoking outrage. These human rights ‘myths’ have become widely accepted, fostering a dangerous mind-set despite being wholly inaccurate. The courts have not held that all prisoners must be given the right to vote; rather that blanket disenfranchisement is incompatible with human rights. To comply with this ruling all the UK must do is offer certain prisoners the vote, for example those serving short sentences or those convicted of non-violent crimes.
The courts did not block the extradition of Abu Qatada in the face of diplomatic assurances concerning torture. Rather the problem was that there was no guarantee that Qatada would receive a fair trial in Jordan. The reason the extradition took so long was because the government focussed on fighting the futile legal battle opposed to seeking further assurances from the Jordanian government.
Although the courts did block the deportation of Mohammed Ibrahim, the press fail to point out that his continuing presence in the UK is due to government failures. Despite killing a small child and fleeing the scene he was not charged with murder, manslaughter or dangerous driving. In fact he was charged only with minor offences and sentenced to a remarkably lenient 4 months in prison. Moreover a deportation order was brought 7 years after the incident. During this time Ibrahim established a family in the UK. As the immigration tribunal pointed out, had the UK sought to deport him upon his release from jail they would have almost certainly succeeded. Government failure, not the Human Rights Act, is to blame for this state of affairs.
Finally the claim that deportation was blocked because of a pet cat is absolutely ludicrous. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, claimed she was ‘not making this up’, however even a cursory examination of the case highlights that she clearly was. The case in question concerned an immigrant in a long-term relationship who could not be deported due to his Article 8 rights. The cat was mentioned in passing as an example of the strength of their relationship. It did not form any meaningful part of the trial and was most certainly was not the reason why deportation was barred. In fact the whole issue of immigration and Article 8 has been blown completely out of proportion. In reality, according to Baroness Kennedy QC, around 98% of all Article 8 claims are rejected by the courts.
Moreover the tabloid press seem to completely ignore the benefits of the Human Rights. Take the case of Gary McKinnon for example, the Asperger’s sufferer who hacked into Pentagon and NASA systems on a quest to find out information about UFOs. His extradition to the USA was blocked due to his poor mental health and the risk of suicide. However despite this being exactly the sort of story the tabloids would endorse, there was minimal coverage. Many other positive examples of human rights are also ignored such as rulings against DNA databases, indefinite detention without trail and phone hacking to name but a few.
Why, then, does the tabloid press seem to have such a vendetta against the Human Rights Act? There are various possible explanations, such as the fact that the claimants in these cases are often criminals/immigrants, a perfect basis for a sensationalist story. However one often overlooked factor is the fact that the press have a vested interest in the anti-human rights campaign. In recent years gossip has become more and more of a commodity and advances in technology have made individuals more vulnerable to intrusive practices. Compounded by the decline of print press, the result is increasingly desperate tabloids which more and more frequently violate the right to privacy protected by Article 8. As the recent surge of cases highlight, the human rights considerations hold the press accountable for such breaches of privacy, limiting just how much they can publish.
This bias is worrying for several reasons. Firstly it is dangerous for the human rights framework as a whole. In the current political climate repealing the Human Rights Act or withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights are very real prospects. An upcoming election and a heavily right wing press pose a genuine risk for the protection of human rights in the UK. A second danger is that judges are aware of this media pressure and are becoming more deferential, wary of the media backlash. A good example of this judicial deference is the case of Max Mosely, who claimed that his privacy had been invaded when details of a ‘sadomasochistic Nazi orgy’ were leaked. Despite the courts finding in his favour, and awarding damages, they refused to grant an injunction or create a pre-publication notification requirement in such cases. This was legally a very real possibility, yet the court lacked the political nerve to make such a bold decision. The influence of the press on the courts is all too clear. It is for these reasons that action must be taken. An aggressive tabloid press with a personal vendetta against the Human Rights Act is threatening fundamental values with inflated and provocative journalism.
Written by: Matthew Foster
King’s College London LLB Student
 ‘Human Rights is a charter for criminals and parasites our anger is no longer enough’ (Daily Mail, 15 July 2012) <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2173666/Human-rights-charter-criminals-parasites-anger-longer-enough.html> accessed 4th June 2014
 ‘The Human Wrongs Act’ (The Express, 1 October 2013) <http://www.express.co.uk/comment/expresscomment/433542/The-Human-Wrongs-Act> accessed 4th June 2014
 Antonella Lazzeri, ‘Inhuman Rights’ (The Sun, 26 June 2013) <http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/4787497/Youngsters-at-risk-after-ruling.html> accessed 4th June 2014
 Hirst v UK (No. 2)  74025/01
 Othman v UK  8139/09
 The Secretary of State for the Home Department v Respondent  UKUT B1
 Dominic Casciani, ‘The case of the cat deportation tale’ (BBC News, 6 October 2011) <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-15171980> accessed 4th June 2014
 McKinnon v Government of the USA and Secretary of State for the Home Department  EWHC 762
 S & Marper v UK  30562/04 and 30566/04
 A & Others v Secretary of State for the Home Department  UKHL 56
 Malone v UK  8691/79
 Mosely v UK  48009/08