Writing for PoliticsHome on the 64th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, Sadiq Khan calls on the media to end the "sensational reporting" on the Human Rights Act.
Today, Human Rights Day celebrates the 64th anniversary of the UN Declaration of Human Rights – which, for the first time at the global level, documented the rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled. But here in the UK there’s little fanfare. For the majority, human rights are someone else’s worry, seen as important only in struggling democracies or the world’s remaining dictatorships.
Most of us in the UK can take our human rights for granted – no worries about the threat of torture, no alarm at free and fair elections being undermined and no fear our open and fair legal system is being subverted. Furthermore, our nation has little knowledge of our proud role in spreading human rights across the globe. Few know of our instrumental role in the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights celebrated on its adoption as the ‘Magna Carta of Mankind’, or Churchill’s pivotal role in the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) that British lawyers and politicians played a major role in drafting. Many don’t appreciate 47 countries, covering 800 million people across Europe, adopted these rights, and that human rights are one of our finest post war exports enhancing our status across the globe.
Crucially, we also need an appreciation of how people’s human rights are protected here in the UK. In part, it’s a product of the youthfulness of the Human Rights Act (HRA) – UK legislation passed by our parliament to allow our own citizens to claim their rights before British judges. Only 12 years old, it is one of the world’s youngest bills of rights. But this ignorance is a product of the kind of relentless media reporting which only focus on the negatives. You rarely read about genuine examples of people’s human rights being trampled on by government using the HRA to rightly get redress – such as the elderly married couple, separated into different care homes whose human rights were found to have been abused or families securing inquests into the death of loved ones. And how many realise that the Home Secretary had to rely on the HRA to prevent the extradition of Gary McKinnon?
But there’s an irony in the negativity towards our human rights law by some in the press – our country’s rich history of journalism is all the stronger because of them. Take the Sunday Times 1979 expose of the extent of the Thalidomide scandal – challenged by an injunction, later ruled to have breached Article 10 on freedom of expression. William Goodwin, a trainee journalist on The Engineer magazine, who in 1996 successfully sought protection of his sources under the ECHR. And the Financial Times (and others) from 2009, whose protection of sources against a legal challenge by Belgian company Interbrew received the support of Strasbourg human rights judges.
As Leveson’s recommendations are digested there are calls by national newspapers to respect freedom of expression, a rightly cherished freedom valued not just by the media, but by all supporters of democracy. Yet Article 10 of the HRA already provides statutory protection of freedom of speech, and has increased the protection of journalist’s reporting matters of public interest. The difficult question at the heart of the Leveson Inquiry is balancing the right to a private life with freedom of speech when they can, from time to time, come into conflict. Both were given statutory recognition for the first time in the HRA but neither of them is absolute. Sometimes there has to be restrictions on free speech – to avoid prejudicing trials or preventing incitement to racial hatred or violence. However, when the HRA was being drafted, after intensive lobbying by the then head of the Press Complaints Commission, Lord Wakeham, a clause was inserted to require any courts to ‘have particular regard to the importance of … freedom of expression’, providing enhanced protection to free speech.
At the same time, anyone appalled by the invasions of people’s private lives exposed by the Leveson Inquiry have reasons to be grateful to the HRA. Phone hacking was not illegal until the law was changed to comply with ECHR judgements on interception of communications following the introduction of the HRA. But it would be churlish of the media to hold that against our human rights legislation, especially considering the benefits brought to genuine investigative journalism. Being narrow-sighted shouldn’t trump fairness.
Our hope is, as the press puts its own house in order in the spirit of public interest journalism, human rights will not be traduced through repeated sensational reporting but a more rounded and accurate picture of the HRA’s pros and cons will emerge. It’s only when you require protection that you appreciate the legislation’s value. And that protection has in the past, and will in the future, be needed by journalists – strengthened all the more by the laws in place to support human rights.
Sadiq Khan MP is Shadow Secretary of State for Justice