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Some Notes on a Sunday Mirror Hit-Piece on Barbara Hewson

From the Sunday Mirror:

Bar this troll: Human rights barrister accused of vile rants against child sex victims

A probe has been launched into a top human rights barrister after she was accused of trolling a string of child sex abuse victims online.

Law chiefs are looking into the claims against Barbara Hewson, 56, following complaints from survivors about foul-mouthed posts.

Messages sent on social media sites from various personal accounts in Hewson’s name have seen her brand victims “lunatics”, “manipulative”, “dangerous”, “cowardly” and “nutwings”.

…She appears to brand one alleged victim “as vulnerable as a lorryload of gravel” and criticises victims “whinging” about their ordeals.

The complaint was made by one Clare Sheahan; according to the article:

Clare, from South London, who has spent many years campaigning against child sex abuse and reached out to other survivors online, said she was targeted by Hewson after disagreeing with a point the lawyer made on Twitter.

Barbara has a public profile as someone who is critical of police investigations into historic allegations of child-sex crimes, which she sees as likely to lead to miscarriages of justice and in some cases as disproportionate. She expresses her views scathingly on social media, and has been known to use profanity. As such, she’s an easy target for the mainstream media outrage economy, which also likes to police social media by deciding who is and who is not a “troll”.

The news hook for the article about Barbara is apparently the “probe”, which means nothing more than that Sheahan has lodged a complaint. We’ve been here before – last April The Times ran an article that reported on a similar complaint against Barbara by one Mesul Desai, which I wrote about here. The existence of Desai’s complaint was deemed news, but not so much the fact that it went nowhere and that he was making a series of wild and bizarre allegations, including the claim on Twitter that Barbara had arranged for his cat to be skinned (more below).

Similarly, the Sunday Mirror hack (a features writer named Geraldine McKelvie) has cherry-picked the information she has chosen to include – most significantly, she has failed to disclose that the “survivors” criticised (at times abusively) by Barbara are part of a loose network of social-media activists who promote lurid conspiracy theories about VIP abuse and who recklessly throw around allegations of paedophilia . Sheahan, for instance, suggested in 2014 that any panel member of the British Journalism Awards who did not agree that David Hencke should win an award he had been nominated for must be a paedophile or involved in cover-ups – perhaps this was meant in jest, but if so it was in very bad taste and it undercuts her righteous pose now.

Further, Sheahan is an Operation Midland truther, who continues to trust in allegations made by “Nick” against Harvey Proctor, Lord Bramall, and others. Meanwhile, the “alleged victim” whom Barbara described as being “as vulnerable as a lorryload of gravel” is none other than Esther Baker, who once mocked a woman as a “cow bag” for suggesting that Bramall had been falsely accused, and whose narrative of abuse by VIPs in woodland has not been substantiated. Barbara has not always dealt with this crowd in the way that I would consider wise, but she has been relentlessly targeted and mocked by these people as a hate figure.

It should also be remembered that Mirror titles have been heavily invested in promoting sensational false VIP abuse allegations about politicians: in 2014 the Sunday People even put Operation Midland’s Nick on its front-cover (the back of his head, anyway), and the Daily Mirror led the way in publicising allegations against Edward Heath. For some reason, though, the latest twist in the saga of Nick seems to be of less interest than a Twitter spat.

Phillimore and Desai

The Sunday Mirror also refers to the ground previously covered by The Times:

Hewson got a harassment warning from police last March following a report from fellow lawyer Sarah Phillimore.

The Bar Standards Board also looked at claims by law student Mehul Desai, a supporter of Phillimore, that he had received death threats from Hewson, which saw her receive a harassment warning from the Met Police.

Phillimore has been in a long-standing dispute with Barbara, initially about family courts but now more generally expressing mutual contempt. Phillimore’s rhetoric about the supposed “warning” and her continuing taunts (often in social-media communication with the likes of Baker and Sheahan) are strong grounds for scepticism.

A “harassment warning”  – more properly, a “Police Information Notice” – is simply a piece of paper that notifies someone that a complaint has been made against them; in harassment cases that come to trial, police believe they may be useful as evidence should a defendant claim that they did not know that a particular “course of conduct” was unreasonable or causing distress. However police do not investigate the initial complaint before sending these “warnings”, and despite being shrouded in pseudo-legal terminology (e.g. the warning is supposedly “served”; it may be “breached” or “rescinded”) they have no legal standing. Barbara did not desist from criticising Phillimore after receiving one, yet there has been no further police interest the matter.

The Sunday Mirror article (and the Times article before it) also fail to make clear that the supposed “death threat” to Desai was sent anonymously by someone using the name “Harry Troll”, and that Desai had simply inferred that it must have come from Barbara. “Harry Troll” has never been traced, but it seems likely that the message was sent to Desai by an unknown person with the express intention of giving him something that he could take to police.

The police (actually Leicestershire rather than the Met) concluded as follows (in a letter shown to me by Barbara, which quotes the police worksheet):

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.

I published this some months ago – and the page on which it appears is one of only two sites that bring up a Google result for the “vulnerable as a lorryload of gravel” phrase (ironically, because Sheahan posted it in a comment). It therefore seems very likely that the journalist would have seen the above. So why report the allegation, but not the outcome or the proper context?

Phillimore appears to have had a hand in both Desai’s and Sheahan’s complaints. To repeat what I said in April: 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.