Back Where We Belong

2 Jan

Speaking of tabloid misunderstanding, it wouldn’t be New Year without the Daily Mail’s return to the UK Human Rights Blog’s Naughty Step (or this time the New Year Dishonours List) for another piece of lowbrow coverage of subtle constitutional issues.

The curious thing is, the UKHRB’s coverage of the Mail‘s article strengthens a feeling this writer has had before, that both sides of the HRs debate are actually quite comfortable in their positions and familiar moves – and indeed with the characteristic moves of each other side. The Mail feels good because some people it loathes (Human Rights lawyers) have put it on the Naughty Step. The UKHRB folks feel good because something they loathe (the Mail) has said something they can nominate for the Naughty Step (again). It’s a win-win.

Well, possibly.

Might I suggest that the reader read the Mail article first ? Bear in mind that the UKHRB regard it as not just wrong (we know that already) but also call it ‘weird.’ Does that strike you as a fair description ? Not just ‘tabloid,’ not just ‘incomplete,’ not just ‘mixing up unrelated things,’ but ‘weird.’

Perhaps it does. OK, then. Now consider which fact or couple of facts in the Mail article you would omit from a summary if you wanted to make it sound ‘weird.’

Now read the UKHRB write-up. Did you guess rightly ?

As Adam Wagner rightly points out in his Comments, ‘£500K on HRs claims’ is straightforward rotten reporting – that’s pretty clearly wrong – but the rest of the article gives rather more detail, and it’s actually not hard to see what provoked the Mail‘s interest.

With doubtless a bit of rounding (and none for inflation), they report that in (apparently) 1999 Legal Aid for prisoners cost £1m, and for the last few years has been £20-£25m. Even making the obvious ‘What about inflation ?’ point – and noting the Legal Services Commission’s response that ‘We’ve tightened the rules now’ – this is a striking increase. The Daily Mail (or the MoJ / HO on their behalf) has apparently excluded from this criminal appeals so that this is an ‘internal affairs only’ figure.

As UKHRB would say – and are entitled to repeat as often as they like – this climb from £1m a year to £20m a year in the HRA’s lifetime is not necessarily all about HRs claims – post hoc is not necessarily propter hoc. However, the question is not – with all due respect – an improper one. Rather than treat the Mail (of course under massive and repeated provocation) as they treat everyone else, wouldn’t it be better to have a go at working out about what proportion are HRs claims ?

Of course that would not be easy. We would have to have a debate about how far legal representation at Prison Disciplinary Hearings is an HRs thing or not (some of the cases, like Tarrant and St Germain in the early 1980s, long predate the HRA), and that might not quickly or definitively be resolved. We could then go on to discuss what would count as an appropriate amount to be spent thus – maybe more than that, who knows ? – and we know how unsympathetically the Mail would report that one. But it might set the Mail and its (many) readers a better example.

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One Response to “Back Where We Belong”

  1. Adam Wagner January 2, 2013 at 11:07 am #

    Thanks very much for the comment. I take the point, and you are right that the human rights debate often descends into a camp-based mentality, and the UKHRB does try (although doesn’t always succeed) to plough a middle path.

    I agree that the Mail article was in some ways interesting – if it had been thought through properly then the information they obtained from the FOI request could have been usefully presented.

    The problem was that this almost certainly went through the editorial grinder and ended up as another silly article criticising human rights – the headline and first few lines (which are what people remember) are not just mischievous, they are entirely wrong and a misrepresentation, to the extent which I think “weird” is an appropriate adjective. Perhaps “pernicious” would have been better. That is serious and can – in my view – validly be separated from any interesting substance which may arise from the body of the article.

    I don’t have any special knowledge about the reasons for the huge increase in prisoner legal aid since 2000, but neither does the Mail. We only see the past four years. A large proportion of the money was spent on representation at parole and disciplinary hearings, which may be related to the prisoners’ human rights (as in fact many kinds of legal aid might) but they aren’t human rights claims.

    As I say, I think it is fair game to call out – as a single issue – the rotten (your adjective) reporting here. That said, I would be happy to accept a guest post if you would be interested in writing a response and/or thinking a bit more deeply than I did about the other underlying issue, the rise in the legal aid bill for prisoners. I can’t see who you are from the blog but please contact me on adam.wagner@1cor.com if you are interested.

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