1 October 2014

'Human Rights in the UK Media: Representation and Reality'

The University of Liverpool hosted a seminar entitled, ‘Human Rights in the UK Media: Representation and Reality’. The event’s speakers circled the same topic. But it became clear as debate flared and evolved that human rights support cannot be assumed. This post discusses some themes that emerged throughout the day. I apologise in advance to the speakers I do not mention. I aim to return to the topic, at which point I will try to include those now left out. Of the speakers I do mention, I apologise if my paraphrasing misinterprets: feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

As a final introductory caveat, I have struggled with referencing because I do not have a text from which to cite. I have tried to rephrase my notes and thoughts to avoid plagiarism. And where possible I have provided link to the blogs of those speakers who uploaded their work post-seminar. Currently it is otherwise impossible to check whether I have echoed a speaker’s words exactly. Please inform me if credit is required for a particular sentence.

1. Two Taxonomies: Misrepresentation and Bias

The day began with suggestions of repugnance at the media’s representation of human rights. David Mead distinguished between the flaws in online tabloid-journalism:
  1. Human rights reporting can simply be erroneous;
  2. Some reporting distorts the human rights-reality. That distortion manifests in several guises:
    • Facts may be misinterpreted or abused to distort reality. This may occur through omission--deliberate (or accidental) absence of the details--or commission--when facts are spuriously interpreted to offer a purposely-wrong impression;
    • Inaccurate descriptors and inferences are similarly problematic;
    • Incomplete analyses may lead readers to believe human rights law supports a criminal, for example, even though a later court has--already--plainly rejected the criminal’s attempt to avoid prosecution with human rights mechanisms;
  3. Some human rights concerns are trivialised, albeit to differing extents. This is perhaps the most offensive problem for the people involved in human rights disputes.
The different misconception-categories overlap. The partitions are useful--especially in Mead’s work--because they facilitate a particularly close evaluation of human rights in the media. Mead approaches that analysis with techniques from Media and Communication studies: content analysis, semiotics, and narrative and discourse analysis may illuminate tacit problems and suggest solutions which strict legal analysis might ignore.

A counterclaim to the potentially-accusatory tone in Mead’s ideas lies in refuting the assumption that journalists act maliciously or even with conspiracy-esque purpose. Owen Bowcott lamented at the decline of legally trained thinkers in the media-sphere. Moreover, the current lack of legal correspondents working for tabloid-press and broadsheets may not help rectify the problems Mead highlighted. And this ratio of lawyers to non-lawyers in the production of popular legal-reporting may directly answer Mead’s thesis--tabloid human rights articles may indeed teach ‘more about the media than about human rights’--not just lessons about the media’s publication-choices, but about the media’s administrative and production methods.

During questions on Mead’s research and later in his own presentation, Eric Heinze raised some forceful objections. These rejoinders began with a reformulation: Heinze was dissatisfied with presumptions about the reasons for media-distortion; so he first split ‘bias’ and continued from that position: it is important to declare whether bias is ‘systemic’--which is outside the media’s control--or ‘discrete’--which assumes individual or corporate choice and agency. Without this distinction, one cannot know whether an accusation of bias correlates with culpability. If a journalist is systemically biased, critics must expose deeper flaws than exist in other journalists’ discrete biases. Though Mead and Heinze argued over this issue, there are similar currents in each’s claims because, consilient with J├╝rgen Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action, Mead’s analysis may explicate flaws in the zeitgeist’s human rights-perceptions, which academics are beginning to attribute (wrongly, according to Heinze) to individual media-voices.

Nevertheless, the effect of conflation between actor, intention, and blame links with Heinze’s other objection: if the various discourses are not allocated space outside this apparently pre-existing human rights-‘super-narrative’* before joining the criticisms together for coherent evaluation, any answers may be flawed. Any criticism that does not accommodate the divergent linguistic natures of law and media may subsequently be reductio ad absurdum. Conveniently, the seminar in question actively gathered voices from varying disciplines--and the day’s discussions were encouraging.

2. Practical Concerns and Implications

Susana Dias presented research concerning the administrative side of news-production (see above). Dias drew upon Portuguese broadcast media for her project, which will soon be available in a book. Newsroom-considerations factor locality with travelling costs, novelty, and public interest. Dias explained a managerial reluctance to send reporters abroad to report stories when public interest is low and a short, low-cost review of any human rights organisation’s press releases will satisfy the viewership. This indicates the media are not solely responsible for the images they portray: if audiences ignore accurate human rights reporting, that reporting’s value becomes questioned, and news may degenerate into sensationalism.

This spiral downwards seems to conflict with the legal justifications for free media-expression, which arguments are based on informative duties and participatory democracy. Jacob Rowbottom discussed this aspect of the human rights debate. The press freedom that is fundamental to sensationalism, misreporting, distortion, and antagonism is one of the many human rights attacked in those reprehensible practices. This irony cannot be lost on the media, who must be aware of their cathedral’s foundations.

Research presented at the seminar showed the UK media does not report human rights cases that have upheld newspapers' rights freely to express. Cases exist, but they are not championed--only the ridiculous is uplifted to a pedestal. If these cases were reported by newspapers, the tabloid attack on human rights--identified by Adam Wagner and others--would be undermined.

If rights, including free speech, were in true danger of deletion, would the media continue their attack, considering that success may disintegrate their privileged status? That’s the problem with the media’s attack: the media pretends human rights emanating from ‘Europe’ are something new. The United Kingdom respected human rights before the European Convention on Human Rights 1950 and the Human Rights Act 1998--albeit with different foci and through different procedures. The danger to human rights, then, is perhaps magnified by human rights defenders whose current trend is to suggest--in opposition to tabloid journalism--that Strasbourg’s demise would equal human rights law’s destruction.

In sharp refutation Mike Gordon questioned the current manifestation of human rights. Human rights, when articulately supported, are usually taken for granted, which may be a dangerous presumption. While it is unclear that abandoning European influence (in any guise) will demolish human rights, Gordon explains the threat to Parliamentary sovereignty--and maybe even to democracy itself--is vividly real. External checks on the UK’s local tripartite government may be useful. But the watching need not occur from Strasbourg, nor in courts. However superior the current system might be to others, until other systems are explored, that superiority is not guaranteed.

Colm O Cinneide noted another phenomenon: many Human Rights Act-based claims are from people on the fringes trying to join the polity. This is ironic: human rights often counter majority-rule; once within the polity, one arguably joins the majority, and arguably joins the group that resists other newcomers--such as those who bring human rights claims to join, change, or restrict the majority. An extending and synthesising question arises: are human rights used simply to limit, as Gordon suggests, democratic mechanisms?

3. Curtain Call

At the event’s end, Michael Kearney considered celebrity and famous personas in human rights and humanitarian non-governmental organisations (NGO) such as Amnesty International and Oxfam. With careful and entertaining analyses, Kearney considered the nature of celebrity, revolutionary themes in hip-hop, and the inability to quantify celebrity-benefit in NGO marketing policies. To reduce the idea to a barbaric summary, hip-hop artists whose time is always directed to revolution might do more for human rights and humanitarianism than an NGO-decisions to affix celebrity faces to their public profiles. I agree--arguably too quickly--because I listen to hip-hop and find the form especially inspiring when considering social justice issues.

4. Final Remarks

In my reductive prose, written to elicit some of the day's emerging themes, I have ignored much. Fortunately, a special publication is rumoured. I eagerly await that text. Until the collection is available, I’ll look forward to Beth Rodgers' forthcoming review of the seminar for Media, Communication and Cultural Studies (link TBC). For any readers who’d like a little more on this topic immediately, some links in the above prose will take you to speakers’ websites and twitter pages--I would advise such trips across the web.

*Apologies, but I am unsure whom (from the seminar) to attribute this phrase to.

Created: 19 September to 1 October 2014. Version 1.0.

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