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.

2 Responses

  1. Trace it back to its source and I believe that her Chambers buckled under pressure from anti-CSA advocates in 2012 after the controversial article she published in Spiked and a related media interview on Newsnight. Rather cowardly on their part. I can’t see why they couldn’t have kept her on while issuing a public statement saying that her views were personal and did not represent those of her Chambers.

    Does this excuse her foul-mouthed outbursts on Twitter, some of them aimed at genuine CSA claimants? Absolutely not. Unfortunately some kind of sanction was inevitable..

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