Rights Gone Wrong Review: Human Rights Act-ing Up

RIGHTS GONE WRONG: Wednesday 14th March, BBC2, 9pm

In this political documentary, an animated and boisterous Andrew Neil donning a remarkably flamboyant cravat scarf marches through Westminster and beyond, meeting and grilling both commentators on and victims of the more nonsensical aspects of the European Convention on Human Rights.

His aim is to cut through all the “misinformationâ€? fed to us by tabloid coverage and political “poisonâ€? in order to discover whether or not the human rights law Britain subscribes to really is an ass. Poignantly timed, this programme will ride on the wave of public outrage and debate over the Government’s failure to deport radical cleric Abu Qatada.

Unlike Neil’s recent documentary offering Posh and Posher, he manages to draw a fairly balanced conclusion here, speaking to an array of individuals on either side of the argument, and everywhere in between.

Although implying his own sympathy for reform and increased freedom from Strasbourg, this is no political bias – in the 1980s he travelled the “long road to Strasbourgâ€? and won his case for press freedom against Thatcher’s Government when editor of The Sunday Times. He knows when the system can be beneficial, but is concerned by its inflated “confidence and reachâ€? in the present day.

There is indeed a strong case put together for a new Bill of Rights for Britain, drawing from the European Conventions as partly inspired by Churchill (a fact that cocks a pleasing snook at diehard Europe-bashing patriots), but updated in accordance to Britain’s independent needs, which in some cases are no longer catered for by a Europe-wide convention born of the 1950s.

Neil proffers this solution at the close of the piece, but thankfully not without reservation that Britain would become a legal “pariahâ€? in Europe. He also smashes the crass patriotic arguments celebrating British heritage over any external intervention, dispelling any misty-eyed fervour for Magna Carta (his disrespect for the medieval charter extending as far as to precede it erroneously with “theâ€?).

Yet despite Neil’s concerted effort at reasoned, balanced debate, there is a disappointing dependence on public opinion, or “the decent mainstream majorityâ€? as he dubiously describes it. Unfortunately, he often gives way to the emotional Human-Rights-Act-gone-mad histrionics that accompany the instances of European human rights rulings that lack common sense, notable by their rarity.

Repeatedly, he gives the example of criminals who avoid deportation due to their right to a family life; the illustration of these stories with floating photographs of victims and sombre piano music somewhat at odds with level-headed legal debate he has mostly succeeded in executing. As Michael Mansfield, the self-styled “radicalâ€? QC he interviews, wisely points out: “I don’t think I want the legal system governed by opinion pollsâ€?.

Follow Anoosh on Twitter @anooshchakelian