Some Notes on The Times and Allegations against Barbara Hewson

From Wednesday’s London Times:

Barrister ‘made death threats’ to student

Police have issued a harassment warning to a barrister amid allegations that she waged a campaign of online bullying, abuse and “death threats” against a law student and another lawyer.

…In a 22-page complaint to the standards board, seen by The Times, Mehul Desai, a student at Nottingham University law school, claimed that he had “received death threats and abuse over the phone” from Ms [Barbara] Hewson.

…The dispute allegedly grew out of Mr Desai’s support for Sarah Phillimore, a family law barrister at St John’s Chambers in Bristol. Ms Phillimore is a well-known campaigner on child protection issues who has frequently crossed swords with Ms Hewson on social media over their opinions on investigations into alleged historical child abuse.

…Ms Phillimore told The Times that, “following months of serious and frightening harassment” by Ms Hewson, she registered a complaint with the police. The Metropolitan Police confirmed that on March 1 “a 55-year-old woman was issued with a harassment warning”.

Such warnings have no legal standing and do not establish wrongdoing, but are used by police as a response to allegations of low-level harassment. There has been no finding against her.

That detail about so-called harassment warnings having “no legal standing” comes in the 11th paragraph of the article, 440 words into the story. The existence of the harassment warning is also the focus of a very brief preview blurb that appeared on the bottom of the front page of the print edition: “Police have issued a harassment warning to a human rights barrister after claims that she engaged in the online bullying of a law student and another lawyer.” The story itself was the lead item on page 5.

The story as presented in The Times is a mess, and it has brought joy to a social media crowd that has actually been subjecting Barbara Hewson to a campaign of trolling abuse and personal intrusion. Facts are distorted and misrepresented, and important context is missing that the authors – Jonathan Ames and Frances Gibb – could have checked out without requiring comment from Barbara.

Background

First, a disclosure: I’ve met Barbara socially a couple of times and we get along. As such, I refer to her in this post familiarly, by her first name. I don’t agree with all of her views or ways of expressing herself, but I expect she gets that a lot.

Most controversially, she believes that the age of consent should be reduced to 13, and she has criticised some prosecutions that relate to “historic” allegations of abuse on these grounds. On these points, I concur with Matthew Scott’s criticisms, which can be read here. The Times article refers to Barbara calling “for the age of sexual consent to be substantially lowered”, but for some reason it doesn’t clarify that this means “reduced to 13” – one suspects the authors opted to be vague in the interests of sensationalism.

Barbara’s perspective has brought her into conflict on social media with a number of campaigners against child sex abuse, and she has not shied away from scathing rhetoric just because some of these campaigners themselves identify as victims – I noted her dispute with Andy Woodward in December. As I wrote then, many of these campaigners are quite reckless in their embrace of conspiracy theories about “VIP abuse” and are vicious in their pursuit of those facing allegations or those deemed to be insufficiently credulous. Some might fairly be described as “Operation Midland Truthers”, and they are particularly incensed by Barbara’s references to the false accuser “Nick” as “Toxic Nick”.

The feud with Phillimore, meanwhile, goes to back to debate over family courts.

The “harassment warning”

The Times cover blurb conflated the so-called “harassment warning” that emerged from the Phillimore dispute with the allegation of the “death threat” made by the student – this misleading effect is amplified by the opening paragraph, which lumps together Phillimore’s complaints and those of the student.

As I’ve discussed previously on this blog, a “harassment warning” is formally called a “Police Information Notice”. It is a mechanism by which police inform someone that a complaint of harassment has been made against them, and it warns them that if the complaint is true, then they should desist from continuing with such behaviour or risk prosecution. However, they precede rather than follow any investigation.

The problem with PINs is that they sound far more formal than they actually are. PINs are “issued”; recipients supposedly “have” a PIN, in the present tense, as if they “have” a criminal record. Also, despite a specific recommendation in the Henriques Report, the Metropolitan Police continues with the rhetoric of “victims” rather than “complainants” – thus a largely derivative Daily Mail article based on the Times story also includes a police statement:

‘The victim, a 46-year-old woman, alleged she had been harassed via a social media network (Twitter) between August 2016 and January 2017. 

‘The allegation was passed to officers in Islington to investigate. 

‘On 1 March the alleged suspect, a 55-year-old woman, was issued a harassment warning. The victim was informed of this outcome.’

In fact, however, a PIN is nothing more than “words of advice” written on a bit of paper – and those “words of advice” may be based on incomplete or even fictitious information. And, as I documented here, police forces seem confused about their status.

Phillimore’s complaint

The ongoing feud between Barbara and Phillimore was previously reported by Ames in The Times in January; and in early February, he and Gibbs referred jocularly to a “‘handbags at dawn’-style dust-up”. The was also a piece in Legal Cheek.

It is the case that Barbara has referred to Phillimore in crudely abusive terms, but the context here is two public figures engaging in a bitter debate. There is nothing in Barbara’s Tweets that would give Phillimore reasonable cause to feel frightened. There is also an extravagant element to her allegations: for example, she Tweeted about a family member, Barbara referred to this Tweet, and Phillimore then announced that Barbara is bringing her family member to the attention of  a “large audience of unrepentant paedophiles”.

Phillimore and the trolls

Phillimore has also undermined her complaint with a series of jocular interactions with accounts that troll Barbara with abusive comments. One particularly vicious account is anonymous, and it is largely dedicated to subjecting Barbara to a sustained stream of highly personalised abuse and mockery that goes far beyond Barbara’s uncivil comments about Phillimore: for instance, the account mocks Barbara’s Irish heritage, and has made gratuitous references to a family bereavement. Phillimore has expressly encouraged the account to “enjoy… freedom of speech”. Such a statement, which would obviously needle and goad Barbara while spurring on a troll, are not consistent with a credible complaint of harassment.

The “death threat”, and a “skinned cat”

The Times led on the claim of a death threat based on the allegation appearing in a complaint to the Bar Standards Council – this is flimsy, given that the student doesn’t appear to have been able to get the police to take his complaint seriously (he is complaining bitterly about this on Twitter).

Further, it should be noted that the student’s range of complaints is extraordinary. In his Twitter bio, up until recently he described himself thus:

Hewson Abuse Survivor (HAS): 11/03 forced in2 twitter, abused, blew whistle, Harassed 12-2.19am, complaints excluded uni, pedotrolled, 3xhackd, cat skinned

He has since removed “cat skinned”, but his Twitter feed includes a photo of his cat with a large gash on its back and tail, along with a letter from a veterinarian practice about treatment. For some reason, the letter has been partially redacted – some details are missing, and if there is a date on the original it is not visible on the posted version.

Does his extraordinary allegation that Hewson arranged for someone to “skin” his cat appear in the document he submitted to the BSB? If not, why not? And if it did, why didn’t Ames and Gibbs draw attention to such a remarkable claim?

Reading through his Tweets, he seems to veer between saying he was “frightened” by Barbara (an email arriving at an unsocial hour described like a phone call in the middle of the night) and boasting about how he might mete out violence against paedophiles.

Conclusion

I doubt that The Times would have run with the “death threat” headline simply based on the student’s word: instead, it was given extra weight due to Phillimore’s separate “bullying” complaint. Thus two weak claims were combined to make a supposedly strong claim, worthy of a prominent position in the UK’s newspaper of record.

Complaints to police and the BSB have served as a media strategy – and those now tasked with assessing their merits ought to take that into consideration.

UPDATE: Police dropped the complaint on 11 May 2017. Barbara has shown me a letter from Leicestershire Police dated 30 May 2017, which quotes the case worksheet (emphasis added, ellipses in original):

The original report of harassment was reviewed…… and found no evidence within the report that we could progress. ……….. there is no evidence to support Mr Desai’s allegation of social media harassment…. Suspect Hewson will be updated no further action will be taken.

Despite the 30 May date, however, for some reason her solicitor did not receive it until September 2017.