Court Finds For Former MP in Counterclaim Against “VIP Sex Abuse” Accuser

From the Daily Mail:

A former Liberal Democrat MP is to receive libel damages from an alleged fantasist who made unsubstantiated rape claims against him.

John Hemming, 58, has scored a major High Court victory against Esther Baker, 36, who has tormented him for four years with unproven claims of child sex abuse.

Baker, it may be recalled, first appeared in the media in 2015, alleging that she had been subjected to sex abuse as a child at the hands of a group associated with a church. She claimed that some of this abuse had occurred in woodland, and that police officers would stand guard, on one occasion addressing an abuser as “Lord”. The Mail notes that at the time she “won the crucial backing of Labour deputy leader Tom Watson”, although he wasn’t the only MP: her name was raised in Parliament by John Mann, and she has received supportive comments online from Jess Phillips and Sarah Champion.

Media reports did not mention John Hemming by name until he himself went public in 2017 as having been accused – however, his identity by this point had been bandied around online and so effectively had been published already. In particular, he was named as an abuser at a rally opposite Downing Street in mid-2015 by one of the speakers, a high-profile conspiracy theorist named Bill Maloney, and from the context it is obvious his view was based on Baker’s allegation. A video of Maloney’s speech was uploaded to YouTube.

The judgment, by Mrs Justice Steyn, can been seen here. The issue is slightly complex in that Baker is actually the claimant and Hemming is the defendant; the “libel damages” referenced in the Daily Mail article refer to a counterclaim by Hemming concerning a Tweet made by Baker. The detail comes at the end of the judgment:

Judgment for the Defendant on the counterclaim, insofar as the counterclaim is based on the natural and ordinary meaning pleaded by the Defendant at paragraph 107 of the Amended Defence and Counterclaim, with damages to be assessed.

Baker denied “that the Tweet caused or was likely to cause serious harm to the Defendant’s reputation”, but “although the Claimant has denied the words of her Tweet bear the meanings pleaded by the Defendant, she has not pleaded what meaning(s) she contends the words complained of bear.” Further, “No defence of truth is pleaded”.

Baker’s own claim is that Hemming libelled her in relation to three statements in which he referred to her as a false accuser. However:

As I have already said in relation to the counterclaim, it was made clear to the Claimant that if she contends that the allegations of rape she made against the Defendant are true, she was required to provide details of what she alleges occurred, when, where and if she alleges the Defendant was part of a group who abused her, to plead that allegation, identifying those who she alleges were part of the same group. Having failed to do so in her claim, in breach of PD53 para 2.8 – and having chosen not to do so in her defence to the counterclaim – I consider that the Claimant should be precluded from denying that her allegations were false…

This does not mean, though, that the matter is quite at an end – Baker still has the opportunity to submit a “Re-Amended Reply to Defence… admitting or denying the truth of each allegation contained in the meanings of the first, second and third publications which the Defendant has pleaded are true”, and as regards the counterclaim an alleged “innuendo meaning” has not yet been disposed of (see footnote).

On Twitter, Baker complains that the Mail failed to use a statement that she provided to the paper. In this statement, she interprets the judge’s ruling as an acknowledgement “that my claim against Mr Hemming is strong enough to proceed to trial”, and she contrasts her situation as an “unrepresented” woman “on disability benefit and who has been made bankrupt” against “a legally represented millionaire”. She also believes that the case raises issues about whether “an accused suspect naming himself as the accused, then restricts a complainant from discussing her alleged abuse”, presumably because her Tweet did not name Hemming. The judge addresses this particular point:

The fact that the extrinsic knowledge which some readers of the Tweet would have had, enabling them to understand that her Tweet was referring to the Defendant, had previously originated from him is irrelevant. The Claimant acknowledged that such a grave allegation was bound to cause serious reputational harm. It does not assist her case to say that she did not name him expressly given that, as she has accepted, her Tweet would have been understood by a proportion of her followers as referring him.

UPDATE (24 November): It has now been reported that Hemming has won a lifetime injunction against Baker which prohibits her from repeating her rape allegations against him, and which clarifies that “the effect of my judgment is that the allegation has been found to be untrue and defamatory”.

Of course, it is impossible to positively disprove a negative, but this this the only reasonable way to interpret Baker’s failure to provide details. Baker’s public account has always been vague and insubstantial, and she has long implied on Twitter that there was some temporary legal obstacle that was preventing her from describing her story in any detail. It is difficult reconcile this with her failure to take the opportunity to put such details before the court at the judge’s invitation.

Footnote: Ritual Abuse and Dolphin Square

In relation to the “innuendo” meaning alleged in the counterclaim, the judgment also contains references to ritual abuse and Dolphin Square, the London apartment block that has long been at the centre of VIP abuse allegations and conspiracy theories:

I have not struck out or given summary judgment in respect of the Claimant’s (amended) defence to the innuendo meaning. The Claimant has denied that she has made claims of “ritual abuse” and she has denied that she has made allegations regarding “Dolphin Square abuse”, which form part of the extrinsic facts on which the Defendant has based the innuendo meaning he has pleaded. She has also put in issue whether the extrinsic facts pleaded support the Defendant’s pleaded innuendo meaning. Those are all matters to be tried.

It is true that Baker has not stressed her alleged abuse has having been “ritualistic”, but her disavowal of the term is surprising given a summary of her claims at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) (emphasis added):

Ms Baker alleges that she was sexually assaulted by her father and by persons of public prominence associated with Westminster and that there were institutional failings in connection with that alleged abuse by police and law enforcement services. She says that her father introduced her to a paedophile ring which included persons of public prominence associated with Westminster. She also says that she was abused from the age of 8 to around age 12 and that the abuse was organised and sometimes ritualistic, that it was filmed, and that the police acted in a security role.

Her story is certainly evocative of the tropes of ritualistic abuse in the popular imagination, and it has been understood in that way by some of her supporters; in particular, Bill Maloney stated that “she was being abused, Esther, in the forest. The forest is a very dangerous place to be taken to be abused, because you’re either going to wind up in the ground, but you know it’s going to be ritualistic.”

The Dolphin Square claim derives from an article that was published by Exaro News and since withdrawn and excluded from the internet archive. Baker claimed that she had been taken by night to London, and that although she had not known the location she recognised details about a secret “medical room” at Dolphin Square provided by a man named “Darren”, who has since withdrawn his claims. Darren in turn claimed to have recognised Baker, and the two accounts were brought together by Exaro‘s David Hencke, although for some reason he excluded her recognition of the “medical room”:

And to add to the complications a third survivor, a man already talking to the Met Police, about allegations in Dolphin Square, London has identified from a picture of Esther as a child, her being there. She remembers being taken to London but had no idea where she had been taken.

That past tense “had” implies that she now does know, although perhaps she could say that she wasn’t certain. However, to my knowledge she has never clarified the point on social media. Hencke settled a libel action brought by Hemming in January, although he denied that the basis for the complaint reflected his intended meaning.