Sunday, 13 February 2011


Journalists, eh! We’ve all had a moan at the media. We love them, we hate them, we love to hate them. I’m the same, and I am a journalist.

As a result of our love-hate relationship with the fourth estate, I’ve become moderately relaxed about things that get written in the papers, but something published the day after the Commons debate on whether prisoners should get the vote really got my blood pressure up.

It was the lead story in the Daily Express. Under the headline ‘Britain in the EU: this must be the end’, the paper launched into a tirade against the European Union, saying the vote by MPs against giving voting rights to those in prison should be a launch pad for Britain leaving the EU.

What utter ignorance! There is a fundamental flaw at the heart of that analysis that beggars belief.

The ruling that said Britain should allow at least some prisoners the right to vote came not from the EU but from the European Court of Human Rights. This is a Strasbourg-based court that monitors compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights. The EU does have a judicial arm, but it’s the European Court of Justice and it’s in Luxembourg (the EU’s parliament is in Strasbourg).

In other words, it’s a totally different court that has nothing to do with the EU. What the Daily Express has done is as fatuous as suggesting that British Gas and British Airways are the same thing because they both begin with ‘British’ and they’re both based in London!

Of course, the Express journalists and editors almost certainly knew this. They will have taken a simple decision: we don’t like the EU, we can whip up a little hatred with the ECHR ruling, so why let the facts get in the way of a good story? It’s a disgraceful way to supposedly inform people, and the Express doesn’t deserve to be called a ‘newspaper’.

I personally don’t think the issue of prisoners getting the vote is a big one. I see no signs that prisoners are pining for the right to vote, and there are bigger problems to be addressed in the realm of penal reform. But there is a bigger issue here.

That is that we cannot pick and choose which parts of human rights we support for others and which we reject for ourselves. Britain signed the Convention as a way of showing it wanted respect for basic human rights the world over. Of course the biggest concerns are those in developing countries, where human rights are frequently violated. But if we say we don’t like the ECHR telling us that our laws contravene basic human rights, what right do we have to lecture even the worst tin-pot dictators on improving their human rights records?

It’s not as if the ECHR has told us what we have to do. It has just said the situation in which anyone behind bars forfeits the right to vote is not consistent with the human rights Convention. That means it's still up to us to decide what we want to do. I would like to see some wording of a revised Act that allows those prisoners to vote who are clearly candidates for rehabilitation, as distinct from those who are behind bars to protect society from them.

How that is done must be left to the lawyers. But we need to be mature about this and actively look for a civilised rewording of our own laws – not get all indignant and seek scapegoats in an institution that has nothing at all to do with this particular issue.