A Note on Barbara Hewson’s Bar Standards Board Suspension

From Jonathan Ames at The Times:

A barrister who called for the age of consent to be lowered to 13 has been suspended for making “seriously offensive” comments on social media about another lawyer… Ms Hewson… was also found to be “disparaging” of the profession’s regulatory process as conducted by the Bar Standards Board.

…The ruling comes after a long-running dispute between Ms Hewson and Sarah Phillimore, a barrister in Bristol who publishes a blog on child protection issues.

In 2017 Ms Phillimore confirmed that she had made complaints about Ms Hewson’s online behaviour to the Bar regulator and to the police.

Ames previously wrote about the dispute with Phillimore at the time, as I discussed here – his reporting conflated her complaint with wild and false allegations made by a law student, which were cited selectively to exclude the most far-fetched elements. The Times eventually issued a correction, while MailOnline settled a libel action over a derivative article.

Ames’s account is most likely second-hand, based on the published Bar Standards Board announcement and perhaps contact with Phillimore. The only journalist known to have been present at the hearing itself was Mark Watts, who appears to have unlimited free time to attend and Tweet about cases that take his interest. Watts’s name of course is today inseparable from that of Carl Beech, the false accuser and sex offender responsible for the Operation Midland fiasco. Watts promoted Beech’s claims uncritically at the website Exaro, and described Operation Midland as “a police investigation that the establishment fears” – and even now, he maintains that Beech was wrongly convicted of perverting the course of justice.

Exaro imputed sinister motives to journalists and others who questioned Beech’s narrative (in one instance Watts even delved into where a BBC Panorama journalist had lived as a child as possible evidence of murkiness) – Barbara was one of the most vocal and scathing sceptics, and given that Watts’s expectations of glory as the journalist who exposed the biggest scandal in British politics have now turned to ashes it is reasonable to interpret his ongoing interest in Barbara’s activities and the disciplinary as compensatory.

Watts’s tweets brought great joy to what can fairly be called the “I Believe Nick” crowd of “VIP child sex abuse” conspiracists (“Nick” being Carl Beech’s media pseudonym before he was exposed). Watts has liberally Re-Tweeted their praise of his coverage and amplified their further complaints against Barbara, including Tweets from explicit conspiracy accounts (I discussed one such regular interlocutor with Watts here), and he is currently making liberal use of a goading “#BarbieTroll” hashtag. He also, however, outlined the arguments put forward on Barbara’s behalf, which was more than Ames managed.

Much of Barbara’s material considered by the Bar Standards Council was indefensible, consisting of crude abuse and some gratuitously intrusive personal references, but there was a case for mitigation based on the toll taken on her mental health by relentless trolling by this same group, and this was the line that her counsel took. Phillimore has interacted with members of this crowd on a regular basis, sharing their contempt and disparagement of Barbara, and I am not convinced by Phillimore’s claims that she was made fearful.

Despite a hard-as-nails and forensic exterior, Barbara made the mistake of Tweeting impulsively and in anger (many of her Tweets were quickly deleted, I believe after having second thoughts), and of confusing having a filter with self-censorship. Those who engage in Twitter controversies – sometimes a necessary activity – would be advised always to bear in mind what they hope to achieve, and whether they are making a point effectively for the benefit of a wider audience or just venting. The latter may be a temptation, but it is seldom edifying or likely to convince. It can also get out of hand, as happened here.

UPDATE: The story has now been picked up by the Telegraph, which tells the story from Phillimore’s perspective. It includes the detail that “In 2017 Ms Phillimore contacted the police to complain and they issued a Prevention of Harrassment [sic] letter, which Ms Hewson unsuccessfully tried to have judicially reviewed.” Details of the case can be seen here – the attempt failed on the specific grounds that such warnings do “not involve any formal determination of any kind… It is simply a record that the allegation has been made”. This is a significant detail that for some reason is absent from the Telegraph account.

Some Conservative MPs and “Soros” Conspiricism

The Times reports on the Sophy Ridge on Sunday show:

[Michael Gove] was asked about Sally-Ann Hart, successor to Amber Rudd as MP for Hastings & Rye, and Lee Anderson, who took Ashfield from Labour for the first time since 1979.

Ms Hart is being investigated for sharing a video in 2017 implying that George Soros, the financier and philanthropist, controlled the EU. She also “liked” a comment beneath the video saying “Ein Reich”, a Nazi slogan.

…Mr Anderson… is being investigated by the party for his activity in Ashfield Backs Boris, a Facebook group in which fellow members supported Tommy Robinson, the far-right activist, and conspiracy theories about Mr Soros were posted.

The facts in each case do not appear to be in doubt, and so the “investigations” will presumably focus on motive and context.

A case for the defence would be that Soros is an extremely wealthy individual who supports contentious causes, and that as such he should be subject to scrutiny and criticism – his Jewish heritage is irrelevant, even though antisemites may also have targeted him for their own reasons. However, this does not address the issue of conspiracy thinking – whatever the extent of Soros’s actual influence, it is not reasonable to suggest that he controls the EU.  How can such an exaggerated or distorted account of a Jewish person’s role and influence in public life not be antisemitic, by very definition? What difference can there be between the idea of a Jewish puppet-master and of a puppet-master who happens to be Jewish?

“Soros” as an all-purpose invocation that supposedly has wide-ranging explanatory value has of course been around for a long time – I first saw it on American websites years ago, and the trend has been especially weaponised in his native Hungary. In British political discourse, though, it has been largely confined to the fringe: last year, Nadine Dorries gratuitously suggested that a small anti-Brexit demo outside a Labour shadow cabinet meeting may have been “paid for by multi millionaire, George Soros”, and she also raised his name in a television interview – both times without facing any censure within her party.

Hart and Anderson will probably be able to extricate themselves with an apology – this was what happened with Lincoln MP Karl McCartney, who had RTed anti-Soros conspiracy theories by the likes of Paul Joseph Watson as well as articles promoting Tommy Robinson.

McCartney was alluded to during the head-to-head between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn a few days before the election: moderator Nick Robinson stated to Johnson “You have candidates who have Re-Tweeted Tommy Robinson talking about – quotes – ‘Muslim paedophiles'”, and Johnson replied that “All those candidates have either apologised or are now subject to investigation”. Prior to McCartney, though, Robinson was RTed by Bob Blackman in 2016 (although Blackman claims to have done so “in error”), and by Dorries last year (in circumstances I discussed here – and no investigation or apology followed).

Footnote

Hart is also controversial for promoting an article by one Cheri Berens suggesting that Muslims are involved in progressive movements as part of a plot to weaken the West, and for a comment at a hustings event that led to the disastrous headline “Tory candidate says disabled people should be paid less as ‘they don’t understand money’”. The latter controversy was a bit unfair – she was actually talking about work placements for adults with severe learning disabilities where inclusion is a social good but uneconomical. This difficult area was an odd topic for her to have got embroiled in.

A Note on the Sun’s Tom Newton Dunn and a Conspiracy Website

From Daniel Trilling in the Guardian:

On Saturday [i.e. a week ago], the Sun published an exclusive story by its political editor, Tom Newton Dunn, which announced that a group of former British intelligence officers had uncovered a “hard-left extremist network” at the heart of the Labour party. “HIJACKED LABOUR” declared the piece, which went on to claim that Jeremy Corbyn sits at the centre of a “spider’s web of extensive contacts” that stretch “from Marxist intellectuals to militant groups and illegal terror organisations”.

The article was online for just a few hours, and was not included in the print edition. It seems that it was removed after some people on social media noticed that the website, itself called “Hijacked Labour”, had cited the neo-Nazi website “Aryan Unity” as a source –  although even without this particularly egregious aspect the website was an obvious crank effusion that made connections that were either banal, inexplicable or simply wrong. One link led to the actor Matt Berry, while a bizarre emphasis was placed on the supposed influence of the deceased French philosophers Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida. At least one person named on the chart complained about their inclusion: this was a doctor named David Rouse, who stated that “I quit labour the moment Corbyn got in as I disagree with his politics.  So looks like they need to try and get their facts right”.

The likely reason why Newton Dunn (or perhaps a more junior reporter providing ghosted content) chanced his arm with the story was that it presented itself as being the work of “former British intelligence officers”. Some critics of the story, eager to detect the media manipulations of “spooks”, took this at face value, but surely a propaganda operation would not have made such a hash of it. It is much more likely that Newton Dunn simply found it expedient not to probe the claims of the site’s creators in any detail, and that as such he was stung by charlatans.

The only supposed author of the site named by Newton Dunn was one Mark Bles, the pen name of a former SAS officer named Mark Whitcombe-Power who resides at a French farm and runs an olive oil business. An SAS background does not make someone an “intelligence officer”, and does not substantiate the existence of a group of such officers. Bles was afterwards contacted by the Guardian’s Jim Waterson, who quotes him as saying “I think it’s an excellent chart, it has a lot of data in it. The data that is in it has all been found on the web”. This sounds buffoonish rather than mysterious or sinister, and my instinct is that he is simply a foolish man whose vanity and confirmation bias made him prey to other bad actors.

Trilling notes that the “Hijacked Labour” website “resembles an earlier graphic that first appeared online in August, under the name the Traitor’s Chart”. That earlier site has now been deleted, along with an associated Twitter feed and YouTube channel (actually, the YouTube channel has been repurposed, with a new name and a prurient banner header that shows some young women exposing their backsides to the camera). The site that first drew attention to the “Traitors Chart” website (and that appears to follow the same website template) has also deleted a page that announced its existence.

Although the earlier “Traitors Chart” was more extensive, the similarities with “Hijacked Labour” were striking: on both sites, Martin McGuinness is misspelt as “Martin McGuiness” and Pat Doherty as “Pat Docherty” (H/T Tribune), and the reference to the three French philosophers took the form of “POSTMODERN NEO-MARXISM JF Lyotard RIP / Jacques Derrida RIP / Michel Foucault RIP”. The “Traitors Chart” website went private just as the “Hijacked Labour” website went live, thus proving an active connection between the two sites. One would like to know Bles’s explanation for this background.

The “Hijacked Labour” website described its content as being a “J2 analysis”. The meaning of this term is unclear, and I think was just a random obscurantism designed to give the impression that the site’s obvious shortcomings actually reflected some deep methodology that ordinary readers would be unable to appreciate. The site also made use of a chatbot engine designed by one Dr Andrew Edwards, who drew attention to its use on Facebook (h/t Naadir Jeewah for this detail).

UPDATE: As noted by Scram News, Newton Dunn subsequently attempted to scrub all reference to the story from his Wikipedia entry, describing it as a “falsehood”. Scram News says that the “the description of the controversy was fair and accurate”, but there was an fact one inaccuracy which I believe he seized on – the passage stated that “the piece included links to the antisemitic conspiracy website the Millennium Report”, when this ought to been “the piece’s source included links…”. Rather than correct this detail, however, Newton Dunn preferred to delete the whole thing. Seems to be a pattern.

UPDATE 2: The press regulator IPSO has declined to take up the issues I raise above, See here.

Footnote 1

The Tribune article referenced above also notes that the chart was praised online by the conservative writer and historian Giles Udy, who described it as “One of the most significant pieces of research I’ve seen for a while”. This was on the same day that the Sun story appeared, meaning that his endorsement was most likely based on a cursory assessment of the site, or perhaps just the Sun article itself.

Footnote 2

A bit more background on Mark Whitcombe-Power. The Sun describes him as having been a “hostage negotiator”, and a bit of Googling finds that he was formerly associated with Halliburton and with a company called Resource Consultants. In 2014 he was also part of a European Union Election Exploratory Mission to the Maldives, in which capacity he was described as a “security expert”.