As Tories aim to scrap Human Rights Act, professor accuses press 'careless or wilful misrepresentation'

The popular press has played a major role in "demonising" the Human Rights Act, which the Conservatives have now said they wish to appeal, according to an expert.

Over and over again the popular press had "peddled false stories, gleefully and irresponsibly then taken up by politicians," Michael Zander, Emeritus Professor at the London School of Economics, said in an article in the New Law Journal.

Professor Zander cited "Catgate" as perhaps the best-known example – the case in which Home Secretary Theresa May (pictured) told the 2011 Conservative Party conference about an illegal immigrant who could not be deported because he had a pet cat.

But while the first immigration judge in his decision had mentioned the joint purchase of the cat as one of the many indications that the immigrant had an established relationship with his partner, it was not the reason for the judge's decision and was not even mentioned in the judgment on appeal, Zander wrote.

The then justice secretary, Ken Clarke, had criticised May for using "a complete nonsense example", and the Judicial Communications Office had put out a statement in 2009 explaining the true reason for the decision.

But, wrote Professor Zander, "in June 2011 The Sun, The Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Mail all carried the story, qualified to the extent that avoidance of deportation was said to have been only 'partly because of the cat – which was still not correct".

In May 2007 David Cameron, as leader of the opposition had cited three examples concerning the Human Rights Act during an address to the Police Federation – a prisoner being allowed access to homosexual pornography, a suspected car thief being allowed Kentucky Fried Chicken and a police force refusing to publish pictures of murderers on the run because doing so would breach their human rights.

"Each of these stores was false," Zander wrote.

In August last year, he went on, The Sun said "Euro judges go against the UK in 3 out of 5 cases heard".

But in 54 years between 1959 to 2013, 22,065 applications against the UK were made to the Strasbourg court, Zander said, adding: "There was a finding of violation in 297 (or 1.3%). Almost all applications are rejected without a hearing. Cases that are heard are ones in which the applicant has a case."

He added: "Careless or wilful misrepresentation in human rights stories is common – and refutations or the rare apology or correction has far less impact."

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