Last week, I spoke at the University of Liverpool, at a one-day conference Human Rights in the UK Media: Representation and Reality, organised by the Centre for Law and Social Justice. The twenty or so papers made for a fascinating day, with contributions from academic lawyers, lawyers in practice, journalists, communications theorists and from NGOs.
The slides from my talk are here (LIVERPOOL PRESENTATION SEPT 2014 ) and I hope to write a much fuller paper in due course. The title comes from “It Says Here” by the Bard of Barking, Billy Bragg, and as I made my way on the train, realised it was thirty years ago almost to the day that I used that same song and lyrics to end a prefects’ sixth form assembly on the power of the press – to be told pointedly that that would be enough politics, thank you!
This Liverpool paper marks several months work – with another presented at Leicester in May (to be part of an edited collection I think) – but the start of much more empirical work to come. It seeks to show how certain elements of the media – and the focus is on The Daily Mail, and to a lesser extent The Daily Telegraph – end up misreporting human rights stories, usually cases. It doesn’t offer explanations for why that might be – but it does conclude that it is, if not dangerous, then corrosive especially in times when the future of the HRA is not secure. Should repeal, reform or change be based on such skewed misinformation which drives (in all likelihood) public misconceptions? The paper does ask where this leaves the right of free speech – or media freedom – at least certain elements of it. If the rationale is an informed electorate and vibrant democracy, it is hard to see how such reporting justifies the vaunted position it occupies in the public sphere – but I hasten to add this element is by no means fully thought through!
The paper does offer several empirical insights – not all, it must be confessed, fully verifiable or inductive. Many are illustrative of a general concern the paper makes rather than being a demonstrable truth. Some though are: the paper shows that the Daily Mail massively over-reports the number of foreign criminals who successful avoid deportation. Of 21 stories in the Mail on-line for the year 7 July 2013 – 6 July 2014 about foreign criminals) searching “human rights act” deportation) only two were about or told the tale of the Home Secretary’s success. The other 19 were in various guises how the UK was forced to let them remain, a success rate for the applicants of some 91.5%. The reality, even on the Daily Mail’s own figures – from an FoI request – is that only 1/3 were not deported, their point being that this was an annual increase in the failure rate of 47%. The government’s data – admittedly hard to track down and for two years ago – show that 76% of foreign national offenders leaving detention in the six months 1 April to 30 September 2012 were removed i.e. a success rate for applicants of 24%. In short, Daily Mail readers are offered a very different – and I would argue false – impression of the chances of using Article 8 to defend deportation proceedings.
The paper offers examples of reporting that is simply false – the outcomes of legal hearings not being some contested and contestable reality, some socially constructed truth – and of distortions, drawing on McQuail (1992) who presents three criteria by which we may assess media bias: factualness (or opinion); accuracy; and completeness (Media Performance: Mass Communication and the Public Interest, London, Sage). It provides examples of the techniques of distortion – by omitting coverage altogether (again drawing on previous research noted in this UKCLA blog of mine where I depict the paucity of coverage of successful UK Strasbourg cases drawing on just this past calendar year) and by commission: through premature reporting (of cases not yet and perhaps never to be heard), through prominence of the story, through partiality in selection of sources, and phrasing of copy.
The paper concludes by offering perspectives drawn from media/communications theory, a whole new departure for me – so there is some content analysis (the Strasbourg silence for example) as well as a nod to semiotics – the Mail regularly talks of “human rights” as if they are as of doubtful status as the Loch Ness monster – and suggests the various discourses, or wider narratives at play.
Any thoughts or comments let me know.