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A Note on the Penny Mellor Conviction

From the Essex Halstead Gazette:

AN obsessive woman who breached her restraining order by posting a series of aggressive Tweets towards an anti-abuse campaigner has been jailed for four months.

Penelope Mellor denied two counts of breaching the order, which was put in place in March 2015 and banned her from contacting or posting messages online about Shy Keenan, who lives near Colchester.

However, yesterday a jury at Chelmsford Crown Court found the 57-year-old guilty on both counts.

The “series” in fact consisted of two Tweets: one referred to an alias previously used by Keenan, and the other described her 2008 memoir Broken as “utter drivel”; according to the report, they also included “gun emojis”.

Curiously, the two Tweets dated from October 2015 and August 2016, and it’s unclear why it took so long for the matter to come to court. Perhaps they were not noticed at the time – but who, then, dug them out so much later? The story was also reported in the Express and Star during the trial, but for some reason is no longer available – that piece headlined Mellor’s defence that the alias was actually the name of someone else, accidentally modified by a spellchecker into Keenan’s alias. BBC Essex noted the trial outcome in a Tweet.

Further details of the court case have been posted to Twitter by the journalist Mark Watts, who is best known for his association with the Operation Midland complainant while working for Exaro. However, Watts did not just observe the proceedings in Chelmsford; he apparently had contact with the police while he was there: “detectives tell me that police are asking themselves whether the little Twitter troll friends of Penelope Mellor… will learn the lesson from her jailing today and stop harassing people – especially abuse survivors” (here); and “I predicted to one officer who has been investigating some of this crowd that they would troll several people in response to yday’s jailing of Penny Mellor aka Penelope Mellor. He asked: ‘Can they really be that stupid?'” (here).

Watts also noticed that Barbara Hewson was present, and he says that he reported this important fact to police, who were “very interested”. Barbara had been vocally critical of Keenan’s part in bringing to trial an elderly former headmaster named Jack Mount on historic abuse charges: Mount was cleared in two trials, and when the third was halted due to Mount’s ill health she described the case as having been “a wicked crusade by Shy and her brain-damaged cohort, Sara”. This was an unkind reference to the campaigner Sara Payne, who apparently suffered a stroke a few years ago: she and Keenan were officially designated “Sun Justice Campaigners” by the tabloid in 2012, in which capacity they fronted stories highlighting child sex abuse and asked the public for information pertinent to Mount’s case. Barbara has also made various comments about Keenan of a scathing nature.

Barbara (wisely) deleted the Tweet, but not before it was noticed by Watts, who says he took it to the Sun on Sunday. Jonathan Reilly’s write-up in that paper is now pinned to the head of Watts’s Twitter page, and an article covering the same ground was also assembled by Jonathan Ames at The Times. Given Barbara’s position as a barrister the story might have some news value, but it is notable that the only two outlets who regarded it as significant enough to publish had particular interests of their own: the Sun, to protect the brand of their “Justice Campaigner”; and Ames at The Times, to implicitly justify and bolster a previous story he had written about Barbara (discussed here).

In case there is any doubt, my view is that Barbara ought not to have posted such a Tweet about Payne; and it is clear that some of Penny Mellor’s comments about and to Keenan that led to her 2015 conviction crossed the line, both as regards quantity and content, some of which was vicious. But one gets a sense that Watts’s interaction with the mainstream media has been strategic, and his vague suggestions about the police sniffing around might inhibit reasonable discussion about matters of public interest.

There is no doubt that Keenan was a victim of abuse while growing up – I can still remember quite vividly the special edition of Newsnight from 2000 devoted to the subject (facilitated by Max Clifford, apparently), in which one of her abusers not only admitted what he had done but seemed to think there was nothing wrong about it (he even seemed to believe that his role in introducing her to other abusers was actually mitigation, since he wasn’t he only one doing it). Yet her book Broken was withdrawn by the publisher Hodder in 2014, for reasons that have not been officially explained; and while this is not conclusive evidence of falsehood it does put a cloud over some of her self-presentation.

Also, Keenan and Payne have a specific discourse about abuse that is arguable, that Keenan sums up as “Anti-Victim Prejudice” (AVP). As explained in a 2014 op-ed for Huffpost, this is a wide-ranging concept that includes not believing accusers: “Every time we talk about paedophiles, they bang on about those who may be falsely accused.” Such expressions of doubt should be “outlawed” – a proposal that may have seemed reasonable to some in 2014, when all manner of “VIP allegations” were flying around, but is now obviously reckless, after the collapse of a number of investigations (several of which, it should be noted, Watts was invested in) and issues around police disclosure. Keenan traces “AVP” to the Paedophile Information Exchange, who she says managed to “manipulate judicial and social policy” in the 1970s.

It is also worth remembering that Mellor’s 2015 trial included a surprise appearance from the TV presenter Esther Rantzen, who famously founded Childline in the 1980s. As reported by Mail Online (sic for “Jimmy Saville” rather than “Jimmy Savile”):

…Dame Esther today discussed allegations by child sex abuse victim and justice campaigner Shy Keenan that were printed on the front page of the Sun under the headline ‘Abuse campaigner: I told Esther Rantzen about paedo Jimmy Saville 18 years ago.’

She said she ‘would have remembered’ if she had been told by Ms Keenan that Saville, Gary Glitter and Jonathan King were child abusers.

If she had been told of such an ‘explosive allegation’ Dame Esther said she would have told her to go to the police.

…Dame Esther told the court: ‘The Sun journalist told me Shy Keenan told them that I said they were too rich, too powerful and that I, Esther Rantzen, could do nothing about it.

‘I said that’s absolutely untrue. I never took the view that anyone was too rich or too powerful. I have a track record in this.’ 

The Sun article appeared in October 2012, shortly after the Exposure documentary on Savile, and it comes across as bandwagon-jumping. Most obviously, given Keenan’s position in public life since 2000, why had she not raised the issue with the journalists and senior police officers with whom she was now in contact as a campaigner (a point discussed in some detail by Moor Larkin)?

The current “hot news” value of Mellor’s conviction ought not to obscure this wider context. Nor should reasonable people be intimidated by Watts’s boasts about his contacts with police and liberal use of the word “troll” to discourage discussion.