What journalists need to know about the Human Rights Act – and why it needs protecting

  • 01 Feb 2022

NUJ Ethic's Council and British Institute of Human Rights webinar

Having a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pepsi while avoiding capture from the police is not a human right under the law.

But that is what readers of the Daily Express were led to believe in story headlined Kentucky Fried Farce that shows folly of the Human Rights Act, about an alleged Gloucester car thief who climbed up on to a roof to escape from the police.

This example was quoted during a webinar organised by the NUJ’s Ethic Council and the British Institute of Human Rights on What journalists need to know about the Human Rights Act.

What had happened was that the man said he would come down if he was given food and drink and the police were quoted as saying they had to look after his wellbeing and human rights. This was enough to unleash outrage from sections of the British press as, together with health and safety, the Human Rights Act had become a bête noir in the similar category of the “political correctness gone mad” variety.

As the webinar heard, the Act is an essential piece of legislation which enshrines in law the right not to be tortured or enslaved and the rights of freedom of expression, having elections and being educated. It is also a friend of journalists and has been used to shore up their rights, including the protection of sources, said Professor Chris Frost, chair of the NUJ’s Ethics Council.

Carlyn Miller, head of policy and programmes at the British Institute of Human Rights, gave a history of the legislation, outlining the 16 rights  and explained which were absolute or qualified. She said journalists had a vital role to play in supporting people to understand how our Human Rights Act works, and to challenge misinformation with knowledge, confidence and evidence, so that stories such as the Sun’s  Serial killer Dennis Nilsen received hard core porn in prison thanks to human rights laws  story can be swiftly debunked. She said:

“Our Human Rights Act provides minimum legal standards for how people should be treated when interacting with the state. It sets out that all of us should be treated with dignity, respect and without discrimination, and it provides domestic legal remedy when this doesn’t happen.”

Professor Chris Frost said journalists needed to be aware of what is law and what is ethics: law being what we have to do and ethics being what we should do. The Q&A session after discussed issues such as privacy – the right to have privacy and the right to take pictures on the street. 

The case of the supermodel Naomi Campbell who had sued the Mirror and won after her picture was taken coming out of a Narcotics Anonymous meeting was discussed.  Lady Hale ruled that the need for treatment for drug addicts was more important than the right of the public to know about it. "People trying to recover from drug addiction need considerable dedication and commitment, along with constant reinforcement from those around them," she said. Professor Frost explained that reporting her visit to the Narcotics Anonymous clinic was allowed, but the photograph identifying its location was not.

The second webinar on Thursday 24 February will discuss the threats to the Human Rights Act from the government which is planning to replace it with a Bill of Rights. Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Justice, Dominic Raab, said he wanted to restore “a common-sense approach in vital areas such the UK’s ability to deport foreign criminals, like drug dealers and terrorists, who too often exploit human rights laws to avoid deportation”. 

He said the UK will remain party to the European Convention on Human Rights, however, “ministers will ensure the UK Supreme Court has the final say on UK rights by making clear that they should not blindly follow the Strasbourg Court”.

The  British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) is concerned because Raab appears to be ignoring an independent review of the Act and is instead putting many of our rights at peril. Carlyn Miller said she was concerned that examples used by Dominic Raab to criticise the HRA were out of date and she recommended activists to use the institute's five-point plan to oppose his plans.

The consultation on reform of the Human Rights Act is open until Tuesday 8 March.

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