Legal reporting is bad

There’s nothing like being involved in a newsworthy event to lose a lot of respect for journalism, at least as currently practiced. Even major newspapers, which are supposed to be the best of the media, contain lots of inaccurate information. I’m not even referring to the ideological distortions which one might expect in certain cases, but to simple matters of fact.

The same takes place when one reads reporting on an issue that one is intimately familiar with. This is compounded when the matter is in some ways specialised. The problem exists in equal measure in science journalism, or technical reporting, at least by non-specialist media.

Let’s consider an article from the BBC: Private messages at work can be read by European employers. This headline is so bad as to be completely misleading.

The case is from the European Court of Human Rights, which is an exceptional mechanism that sets the minimum bounds of protection for the rights recognised in the Treaty of Rome. The function of the court is to make sure states do not infringe human rights or allow them to be infringed, but higher standards in matters of labour law and protections or remedies above those provided for in the treaty are perfectly possible. Different countries will have different domestic law on matters of privacy, personal data and the workplace. So this judgement limits itself to saying that the Romanian appraisal of these matters is compatible with human rights.

But it gets better. If one reads the article very carefully, there are indications that not all is as it seems from the headline:

Because it believed it was accessing a work account, the judges said, the firm had not erred. […] The judges said: “The employer acted within its disciplinary powers since, as the domestic courts found, it had accessed the Yahoo Messenger account on the assumption that the information in question had been related to professional activities and that such access had therefore been legitimate. The court sees no reason to question these findings.”

The judgement is a bit more involved than some of the article suggests. It’s not simply the case that employers can read private messages sent during work hours. It is, however, compatible with human rights for employers to check the work accounts of workers, on the basis that they’re meant to be used for work-related purposes. These checks must be proportional, and in this case they appeared to have been, although the court doesn’t properly dispose of the employer checking a private messenger account, in my view. Moreover the case was in relation with a labour proceeding, since the worker didn’t attempt to lodge a criminal proceeding for interference with private correspondence. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened in that case.

Whether one agrees with the ruling or not (I think it is likely to have potential issues with use of work accounts for union purposes, for example, which should remain confidential from one’s employer) the reporting on it is very unclear, and in fact misleading.

If one had to attempt to summarise the judgement itself, perhaps one could say something like: Court of Human Rights allows states to let employers check on workers’ Internet use when such checks are proportionate and pertain to professional matters.

Of course that wouldn’t make for a good headline. It’s possible that the matter just doesn’t lend itself to being contained in a short sentence. Journalists could at least try not to make a summary that’s more or less the opposite of the actual fact, though, as the judgement is fairly clear that infringements on private messages are unlawful, and if the worker had admitted to private use the situation would have been different.

Marx, on an article about freedom of the press, called newspapers omniscient, all-sided and ubiquitous, but in that regard there seems to be a considerable distance between theory and practice.