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6 October 2014

What has the Human Rights Act done for us? Quite a lot, as it turns out

The European Court of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act have both done a huge amount of good for people in the UK.

By David Banks

Some papers have welcomed Conservative plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and relegate the European Court of Human Rights to an advisory body.

The HRA and ECHR, they think, have only ever given succour to terrorism suspects, minorities and asylum seekers with a cat*. What, they ask – and with apologies to Monty Python – has the Human Rights Act ever done for us?

Well, if you are a journalist, quite a lot really:

1. It protects your sources, and it protects you when you try to protect them.
When Sally Murrer, a reporter on the Milton Keynes Citizen faced trial in which evidence had been obtained by police bugging, the case was thrown out because her rights under the ECHR and HRA had been violated.

When Alex Thomson, Lena Ferguson and Toby Harnden all faced contempt proceedings following their refusal to reveal source to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, the threats came to naught, because, among other things, they were nailed on to appeal it to the ECHR.

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2. The ECHR gave us the Contempt of Court Act 1981.
I know, that might seem like a stick with which to beat us, but compared to the old common law contempt, it is a real liberalisation that recognises our right to freedom of speech and protection of sources.

The Sunday Times had been right through the UK appeal process when common law contempt had prevented them revealing the true scandal behind the Thalidomide drug. It was only the ECHR that opened the door for them and so ensured victims were given greater compensation. Having lost the case, the UK government really had no choice but to replace the draconian common law with the Contempt of Court Act 1981.

3. Open reporting of the courts.
For every defendant trying to cloak themselves in anonymity using rights to privacy, there should be a reporter on the press bench pointing out Article 6’s rights to open trials includes proper identification of any defendants.

4. Restraint of police powers.
The Metropolitan Police used powers under RIPA to obtain the phone records of Sun journalist Tom Newton Dunn, as well as those of the paper’s newsdesk. This is being challenged by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Where? You’ve guessed it, the European Court of Human Rights.

The Act also very handily includes a right not to be arbitrarily arrested and a right to a fair and open trial if you ever are. We take this for granted, but there are journalists all over the world working in fear of such powers.

In his elegant demolition of the myth of Magna Carta, David Allen Green points out that rights we suppose we have in it are unenforceable in any court, unlike those ensured by the Human Rights Act.

5. Freedom of expression itself.
Journalists do not have any special rights over and above anyone else. The freedom of expression for everyone protected by the ECHR and HRA underpins everything we do – whether it is investigating a corrupt arms dealer, or expressing an opinion about the X-Factor. The Conservative Bill of Right appears to suggest that rights will be accorded to those who behave responsibly – but who is to determine what a ‘responsible’ press will look like?

It seems to me that a ‘responsible’ press might be just that bit less free.

So, apart from protection of sources; openness of the courts; freedom from imprisonment without due process; protection from police snooping and the freedom that allows us to function as journalists every day – just what has the Human Rights Act ever done for us?

*Not really, it wasn’t true when Theresa May claimed it, and it’s still not true now.

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