UK press accused of ‘misinformed media storm’ over email spying story

The British press has been accused of whipping up a “misinformed media storm” over a court case in which judges decided that a man whose employer accessed his personal messages had not had his rights violated.

Europe’s top human rights body took the unusual step of issuing a statement explaining how the European court of human rights works after a series of what it called “inaccurate scare stories” was published this week.

“Certain parts of the UK media sometimes have trouble getting their facts right when covering ‘Europe’. It’s understandable, to a certain extent. Europe’s institutions are complicated, journalists cover lots of different issues and they work to tight deadlines,” a spokesman for the body said.

“Nonetheless, this week’s reporting of a judgment from the European court of human rights on monitoring personal communications at work has set something of a new benchmark.”

The case centred on a Romanian man, Bogdan Barbulescu, who asked the human rights court to rule that his right to a private life had not been upheld.

Barbulescu sent private messages to his fiancee and brother on a Yahoo Messenger account his employer had asked him to set up for work purposes. The firm argued that it had forbidden any use of the internet for private purposes.

When confronted by his bosses, Barbulescu denied the personal use of the account and, in order to establish the facts, his employer accessed both the professional and private messages he sent. He was subsequently fired.

After fighting an unsuccessful battle in the Romanian courts, he took the country to the human rights court. But judges decided that there had been no breach of his rights.

The spokesman said: “Numerous outlets – primarily, but not exclusively, from the UK – have portrayed Tuesday’s judgment as giving bosses across the continent a new ‘right’ to snoop on all of their staff’s personal messages sent using Facebook, Twitter, What’sApp, Gmail or any other platform.

“It sounds scary, and it makes a good story, but it’s not true.” He added that the reporting was a “striking example of how far and wide inaccurate scare stories can spread if journalists, and others, don’t get their facts right”.

The story was reported on the front page of the Sun, the Mail, Metro and the Financial Times on Thursday. Metro issued a clarification the following day, saying it had erred in linking the court to the European Union.

It was also covered by the Telegraph, the Guardian and the BBC, as well as by the Independent and the Times. Besides those titles, the Mirror, the Star and the Express, as well as Huffington Post, the Evening Standard and many others produced articles on it.

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Camilla Wood

UK based Legal Aid Lawyer

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