The right to be forgotten must not become universal

Airbrushing our own history could set a dangerous precedent

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The Independent Online

The so-called “right to be forgotten” ruling by the European Court of Justice last year continues to have a significant impact, with all sorts of material being removed from Google search results. 

The law does not apply to individual news outlets like The Independent’s website, and for the most part we are reluctant to remove articles from what we believe to be an important archive of material. There might be exceptions if an article is demonstrably inaccurate (as opposed to having been made no longer true by subsequent developments), or in certain other unusual circumstances. But, for the most part, we do not take articles offline simply on request.

Occasionally, someone who gave an interview long ago has a change of heart and asks for the resulting article to be taken down. This can be tricky, since it is obvious that the information was publishable in the first place only by their consensual actions: can that consent by subsequently withdrawn and removal enforced? Not as a matter of principle, perhaps, but there are times when it might be considered. 

People who talk to newspapers today must realise that any consequent publication will be online as well as in print. But that wasn’t the case 20 years ago, when it might have been assumed that an article would appear once, then be consigned to the British Library’s microfilm. Also key is the nature of the material: is the information we have published likely to have an impact on a person’s private life? 

A request last week highlighted both these factors. It came from a man who spoke to The Independent in 1992 about his horrific experiences as a prisoner in a high-security US jail. He was raped multiple times, often gang-raped, and contracted HIV. His account of his experiences was frank and unremitting. However, 23 years on he felt unable to escape the past he had described so courageously. The interview had been compelling and we were reluctant to lose a significant piece of journalism. But the retention of the man’s name was not crucial at two decades’ remove, and his request that we anonymise the piece was one we felt content to comply with. 

Even so, it is right that changes such as these should be the exception. Indeed, it is notable that most of those who wish to rewrite history are not victims, but the perpetrators of misdeeds who wish their past to be concealed from view. We should not look on their attempts to do so with such sympathy.

‘Kindly’ Corbyn must still bear the usual scrutiny 

It’s been a rum old week in politics, with Jeremy Corbyn’s first party conference as Labour leader having been minutely dissected by some of the media commentators he professes to dislike, or at least to dismiss.

Some readers feel Corbyn’s desire for a “kinder” politics has been too easily dismissed, that journalists should simply accept that we are witnessing a brand new way of doing things. Well, perhaps Corbyn’s approach is unique. But the role of journalists must be to set it in a wider context: to consider how a Corbyn-inspired Labour Party can operate in the existing parliamentary framework; and to place all this in a longer-term perspective.

Corbyn may feel he will benefit from creating the perception that a critical media is out to get him. But wanting to examine Corbyn’s leadership in terms other than ones he sets himself is not the same as seeking to oppose him.