Trauma Therapists Renew Attacks on “False Memory” as False Memory Syndrome Foundation Closes

From the website of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation:

After 27 years, the FMS Foundation dissolved on December 31, 2019. During the past quarter century, a large body of scientific research and legal opinions on the topics of the accuracy and reliability of memory and recovered memories has been created. People with concerns about false memories can communicate with others electronically. The need for the FMS Foundation diminished dramatically over the years. The FMSF website and Archives will continue to be available.

The announcement has received little media attention, although it has been celebrated by those who argue that “false memory” is a pseudo-explanation contrived to undermine victims’ testimony of historic child sexual abuse. In this framing, the FMS Foundation has closed not because its “need” has “diminished dramatically”, but because the notion of false memory has been exploded. Thus a polemical article on the website of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation is headlined “The Rise and Fall of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation“. Oddly, however, although the article does refer specifically to “recovered” memories, the subject is downplayed:

FMSF Advisory Board profiles show just how personal and sometimes vicious their involvement was. One Board Member, John Hochman MD wrote, when talking about therapy for people who reported a history of child sexual abuse, “The real message being sold by these new therapy messiahs is the ultimate cry-baby solution to everyone’s pitiful human problems. It’s all someone else’s fault.” It is hard to fathom that these words come from a mental health professional.

No source is provided, despite a list of references at the bottom of the page, but a bit of Googling shows that the quote is taken from a 1993 op-ed that appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

Welcome to the strange world of memory recovery therapy. This is a pseudoscience based on the notion that tens of thousands of Americans were repeatedly molested as children and don’t know it.

People involved in memory recovery therapy have been convinced by misguided self-help books or therapists that they are “survivors” of totally forgotten sexual crimes. They are told that their eating or sexual or marital problems will clear up once the “lost memories” are found. The real message being sold by these new therapy messiahs is the ultimate crybaby solution to everyone’s pitiful human problems: It’s all someone else’s fault.

In other words, Hochman is referring specifically to “people who reported a history of child sexual abuse” as a result of therapy in which they were encouraged to “remember” such abuse for the first time. It is difficult to believe that the quote used by the ISSTD has seen extracted in good faith. Hochman goes on to highlight various problems with the idea of memory repression, but the ISSTD is less concerned with these points than with pulling a quote out of context to falsely imply that Hochman is dismissive of all allegations (incidentally, it’s not clear why the IISTD quote adds a hyphen to”crybaby”, but it makes the original slightly harder to find).

Another “gotcha” quote refers to another member of the FMS Foundation board:

Another member, Dr Rosalind Cartwright PhD, describes her desire to become involved as follows: “A friend and colleague had an adult daughter in therapy accuse him of childhood sexual abuse.” She says, “It was my best judgment that this was unbelievable of the person I knew and could only been induced by the therapist.” One can only wonder if she had had any psychological training or knowledge of how common it is for perpetrators to present and operate quite differently within the family home, as opposed to the professional sphere. And how on earth she reaches a conclusion of ‘therapist induced memory’, with presumably no contact with the daughter or therapist, is difficult to fathom.

This complaint has more merit, but picked out from a collection of more than 40 board member bio-blurbs it hardly amounts to a significant or systematic critique.

Inevitably, the article also focuses on the fact that the FMS Foundation’s founders, Pamela and Peter Freyd, were themselves accused of abuse by their adult daughter Jennifer Freyd, who is herself psychology professor. Presumably we should therefore suspect their motives, but it is not a great surprise that someone who says they have been falsely accused would develop an interest in the mechanics of how false allegations come to be made and believed. Equally, of course, a guilty person might be motivated to associate with a concept that might undermine the strength of the evidence against them, but that is simply a truism. The science of memory does not rest on the personal authority or integrity of the senior Freyds.

One undoubted problem with the FMF Foundation, though, was that the name was misleading. Memory science today acknowledges that the normal functioning of memory includes incorrect recall – as such, there is no need to postulate a “syndrome” or to psychopathologise the process, even though therapists may have been involved. The legacy of the word, however, means that “false memory” is portrayed by critics as simply a device by which victims are stigmatised as mentally ill. This was seen recently when Harvey Weinstein’s defence team announced that it would be calling memory experts to give testimony on memory. According to an article by two “trauma psychologists”, Anne P. DePrince and Joan M. Cook, published by The Conversation,

…Weinstein’s defense team has prepared to call witnesses to argue that women who came forward to accuse him suffer from “the formation of fully false memories for events that never happened.” This is not a suggestion of normal problems with memory or recall, but the unlikely proposition that his accusers somehow developed entire memories of sexual assault that never actually occurred.

The article refers here to Deborah Davis, although we now know that Elizabeth Loftus will also be called. Loftus gave her testimony on Friday; the Los Angeles Times reported:

She has routinely testified that memories can be transformed and contaminated — and, in some cases, altogether false.

Loftus stuck to a similar narrative during her testimony Friday, though she was not permitted to speak on issues of memory tied to sexual interactions. She explained that many factors can lead to weakened or entirely fabricated memories, including some therapy techniques, media coverage and questioning by law enforcement.

In other words, her testimony was concerned with general principles of memory. This is in line with a profile of Loftus from the Los Angeles Times that appeared just a few days ago:

When asked if she must believe in the innocence of a defendant to testify on their behalf, Loftus answered the question indirectly.

“I believe that science belongs to all of us. So my decisions on whether to work on a case are sometimes based on scheduling, or whether it seems interesting, or whether it’s a death penalty case where the outcome could be very severe,” she said. “Most of the time, I don’t know if they did it or not.”

In her 1992 book, “Witness for the Defense,” Loftus writes that she is not defending the clients whose cases she takes on. She is “detached and disassociated” on the stand, she says, “simply presenting the research on memory.”

This supports what I noted in a previous post, in which I drew on statements by Julia Shaw: a memory expert may talk in general terms about the conditions in which false memories may arise, but it is not their job not diagnose a particular piece of testimony as being the result of a false memory – they do not “diagnose” accusers. As such, it appears that DePrince and Cook have distorted what the “witnesses” intend to say, conflating general expert testimony with the defence case itself for polemical effect.

One concern I do have with the idea of “false memory” is that it may sometimes be an over-explanation. There are legitimate reasons why a genuine victim may make a late disclosure, or have previously interacted with someone in a way that seems inconsistent with having been their victim, but for a false accuser “repressed memory” is also a convenient explanation for making a late allegation. I also wonder about the distinction between remembering something and persuading yourself you have remembered something – recovered memory therapy includes imaginative exercises (as I discussed here), and if an expert tells you that your ability to vividly imagine something is in fact because it is a memory, who are you to argue?

IPSO Backs Tom Newton Dunn’s Deleted “Hijacked Labour” Conspiracy Chart Article

It has now been a bit longer than a month since the the Sun newspaper published, and then deleted, an article promoting a website that purported to have traced how 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 fact that Corbyn has had some controversial and discreditable associations over the years is hardly news, but the website’s chain of associations was absurdly diffuse and conspiratorial. At least one person who had left the Labour Party over Corbyn was annoyed to find his name on it; there were inexplicable inclusions, such as the comedy actor Matt Berry; the authors appear to have a crank obsession with three French philosophers (Derrida, Foucault and Lyotard); and there were signs of sloppiness and incompetence (Keir Starmer becoming “Kevin Starmer”, for instance).

What did for the Sun article, though, was when social media users noticed that sources for further reading were included alongside some of the names, and that these sources included neo-Nazi websites. That was apparently too much even for the Sun, and the piece was promptly pulled. The article’s author, Tom Newton Dunn, has declined to comment on the matter since then, although he did apparently take to Wikipedia to try to have a reference to the incident suppressed from his page.

Of course, there is no law against promoting a crank conspiracy website that uses vile sources, although those named on it might reasonably complain that the Sun had amplified a smear website that was inciting hatred against them. What interested me, though, was that Newton Dunn had misled his readers about the website’s provenance and the credentials of the persons behind it. According to Newton Dunn, the website was the work of “former British intelligence officers”, led by “ex-SAS officer turned author Mark Bles”. These details were reported as fact, and so I decided to make a complaint to the press regulatory body IPSO.

My complaint was follows. First, Mark Bles (real name Mark Whitcombe-Power) is not a “former intelligence officer”. The SAS is an elite combat unit, but it is not an agency of British intelligence. Second, the website, called “Hijacked Labour”, was obviously a reworking of an earlier website called “Traitors Chart”, toned down slightly with a less inflammatory name and the most egregious absurdities removed. That earlier website was deleted as soon as the new one was created, which was a few days before Newton Dunn wrote up his story. Clearly, someone was trying to obscure their tracks, and those curious about where the chart really came from would be advised to probe the websites that first promoted the “Traitors Chart” (there’s also a video with a narrator – also deleted, but helpfully preserved here). And third, the poor quality of the website is manifest grounds for scepticism as to its purported origins with “intelligence officers”. There is no evidence that this “group” of ex-officers actually exists, and I’m inclined to the view that Bles was duped into fronting the project.

IPSO, however, is unconcerned. The body has written to me to explain that “the SAS, as a unit, are often involved in covert intelligence gathering”, and also that I did not dispute that Mr Bles had “worked as an ‘intelligence specialist’ outside of the SAS.” As such, there is no “significant inaccuracy”. It should be noted that this is not the Sun‘s defence of its article – this is IPSO’s own argument. In other words, when a complaint is made to IPSO, the organisation serves as both defence counsel and judge.

I was invited to respond to this within seven days if I wished IPSO to reconsider – however, the email was sent to me on the afternoon of 24 December, meaning that a seven-day deadline was actually three working days away. It is difficult not to regard this as deliberately obstructive.

My response was that many jobs involve “covert intelligence gathering” – police officers, benefits investigators and so on. That does not make those who do them “British intelligence agents”. I added that that term “intelligence specialist” has no specific meaning, but that in any case it is irrelevant here. The point is that “British intelligence officer” obviously designates membership of an arm of British intelligence.

Three weeks later, it has been explained to me by IPSO that that article’s headline stated that “Ex-British intelligence officers say Jeremy Corbyn is at the centre of a hard-left extremist network”, and that this word “say” means that the claim was not being reported as fact. As such, I have no case.

This was a curious reply, as it argued against a point that I had not raised. The problem with “Ex-British intelligence officers say” is not with the word “say”, but with the designation “ex-British intelligence officers” being reported as fact. Such an obtuse misreading of my complaint suggests to me bad faith.

The Manchester “Grooming” Report in Media Context: Some Notes

From the Manchester Evening News:

Greater Manchester Police have been accused of ‘covering up’ historic child sex abuse over the past 15 years after it emerged that a 100-strong gang of suspected paedophiles were left free to offend, despite the force knowing what they were doing.

Maggie Oliver, the retired detective who blew the whistle on GMP’s aborted Operation Augusta – which had uncovered widescale abuse but was closed abruptly in 2005 regardless – said that not only had the police ‘deliberately’ not investigated child rape, but that it had tried to get today’s report by the mayor’s office suppressed.

The background to the story is not new: way back in 2014 ITV News ran a piece titled “ITV News investigation finds hundreds of child abusers walking free in Manchester due to police failings”, which included the detail that “Margaret Oliver submitted a report to senior GMP officers more than 10 years ago with details of the abuse allegations.” Then as now, there was particular emphasis on the abuses suffered by Victoria Agoglia Byrne, who died of a drug overdose aged 15 in 2003. However, public memory is short, and the new report is being regarded by many on social media as a shocking new “grooming” revelation, with anger that it is not today on the front pages of all the newspapers.

The mayor’s office report be read in full here. It explains that Operation Augusta came into being following a 2004 television documentary called Edge of the City, which took an observational approach to deprivation in Keighley on the edge of Bradford. Broadcast was delayed after the BNP attempted to capitalise on the documentary’s segment on grooming, and the Guardian interviewed the director, Anna Hall, at the time:

According to Hall’s film, the Keighley social services office has recorded 50 to 70 possible cases of grooming, while the children’s charity Barnardo’s currently has 15 projects working with young people across the UK who have been abused. But what struck Hall about the cases she found in Bradford and Keighley was that “blatant abuse was going on under people’s noses, and no one seemed able to prevent it”.

Prevention and cure are both difficult. Where the girls are over 13, police are unable to act unless they themselves make a complaint. Many of the girls either do not think they are being abused, or have been so heavily drugged that they cannot recall clearly what has happened, or are intimidated by what will happen to them and their families if they do speak out. Hall’s hope was that the film would convey the sense of outrage felt by the victims’ families and by social workers, and that this might lead to changes in the law and dedicated policing nationwide.

This notion that “police are unable to act” if a girl is 13 or over unless she complains is new to me, and it is curious that such a comment was apparently taken at face value. Of course, it may be that a non-compliant witness aged 13 or above might make a successful prosecution more difficult, but that’s not the same as the police being “unable to act” (1).

According to the new mayor’s office report:

We have established that this documentary was a consideration of the gold command, and in our judgement appears to be one factor in the decision to initiate Operation Augusta. Mrs Oliver believed the Augusta team was not required to research Victoria Agoglia, although she had since spoken to a close relative of Victoria who believed that in 2014 the chief constable had agreed to reopen the case. Mrs Oliver believed the overdose that killed Victoria Agoglia was administered by the Asian abusers. She expressed the view that she believed that social services knew they had failed Victoria as she was in their care. Although she had no evidence, Mrs Oliver believed that social services tried to exclude the family from the inquest into the death of Victoria to “protect their own backs”.

The decision to look in turn at Operation Augusta’s failure followed a 2017 BBC documentary called The Betrayed Girls, which focused on Rochdale but also referred to other towns.

It is worth pausing to note that despite a popular trope that the mainstream media is involved in “covering up” grooming crimes, their exposure in this instance owes a great deal to the work of reporters at three of the UK’s terrestrial broadcasters.

As such, it is depressing to see Oliver’s willingness to amplify the self-described “alternative media” of the conspiracy milieu – thus today on Twitter she is engaging with Anna Brees, while the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has referred to “Mr [ Chris] Jacobs, who is acting for Maggie Oliver and John Wedger [sic – should be “Jon Wedger”], both retired senior police officers and whistleblowers” (more on this here). Brees and Wedger are strident in their denunciations of the mainstream media, expressed in conspiratorial terms, and sometimes seguing bizarrely from Satanic Ritual Abuse to the BBC’s coverage of the war in Syria. In recent months, Oliver has appeared on online shows run by Richie Allen, who is an associate of David Icke, and Shaun Attwood, who is a fan of Icke and Alex Jones.

Footnote

1. Some people on social media have referred to a quote attributed to Nazir Afzal, the well-regarded former Chief Prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service who pursued the Rochdale grooming perpetrators. The quote was apparently provided to the BBC Radio 4’s PM programme on 19 October 2018 (at 34 minutes, although no longer online) and was transcribed by a site called AltNewsMedia. According to this transcription, Afzal said:

You may not know this, but back in 2008 the Home office sent a circular to all police forces in the country saying ‘as far as these young girls who are being exploited in towns and cities, we believe they have made an informed choice about their sexual behaviour and therefore it is not for you police officers to get involved in.

Obviously this was not meant to be a direct quotation of the circular, but so far no-one has been able to identify which document this refers to. Someone even did a freedom of information request about it, which drew a blank. Home Office circulars are public documents that remain hosted online by the National Archives, and as such this difficulty in pinning the document down is mysterious.

“Celebrity Psychologist” Draws Fire Over “Manipulative Meghan” Article

From Mail Online:

Manipulative Meghan knew Harry needed a strong woman in his life after Diana’s death and exerted control by capitalising on events that hit his self-esteem, writes psychologist JO HEMMINGS

…He always seemed vulnerable, but rarely weak, but she has convinced him over a relatively short period of time, to relinquish his close relationships, his family ties and take a leap of faith into a new life with her.

Not exactly coercive behaviour, but on the surface seemingly quite manipulative.

…We also have to remember that other than her mother, Meghan has no family members she is close to – quite the reverse in fact – which would suggest that she is very driven by fulfilling her own needs and may be quite narcissistic in nature.

The article has not been well-received on social media by those who sympathise with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and the question has been raised as to whether it was ethical for someone who claims professional credentials as a psychologist to have offered an assessment that appears to psychopathologise both their relationship and Meghan’s personality. What struck me, though, was the banality of the bog-standard punditry. Among many others, the likes of Piers Morgan (a spurned and bitter would-be confidant) and Eamonn Holmes have already opined along tediously similar and predictable lines; psychological expertise here supposedly makes Hemmings’s article value added, but the theorising and speculation are parlour-game stuff that anyone can engage in.

On the ethical question, Hemmings is associated with the British Association for Behavioural & Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP) and with the British Psychological Society (BPS). Her day-to-day work also involves what she calls “coaching”. However, she does not claim medical expertise, and “narcissistic” in her article should be understood as a descriptor rather than a diagnosis – although it’s doubtful that general readers will understand such nuances. Professional peers are not impressed: a joint complaint is being made by two special interest groups within the BABCP (Women and Gender Minorities Equality, and Equality & Culture), and a comment from a clinical psychologist named Eleanor Johnston is representative:

Whatever you think about Meghan and Harry, any ‘Psychologist’ who claims they understand how another person’s mind works without ever even meeting them is being dishonest. Ofc there are hypotheses, based on research, e.g. Meghan may feel x,y,z BUT these are hypotheses, not fact!

It has also been pointed out (by me, among others) that Hemmings has only graduate membership of the BPS, which is open to anyone with a 2:2 or above in psychology. She does not have charter membership, which the BPS describes as “reflect[ing] the highest standard of psychological knowledge and expertise” and as “our gold standard”, and which entitles members to use the legally protected term “Chartered Psychologist”. The Mail Online article bills Hemmings as a “celebrity psychologist”; recent articles have introduced her as a “behavioural psychologist” (The Times and the Guardian); a “body language expert” (the Sun); a “relationship expert” (Metro) and a “consultant psychologist” (the Telegraph). This is based on a psychology degree from Warwick and then “further training” at an unspecified college of the University of London. She has also produced some popular works, including a sex manual.

Hemmings has responded to criticisms on Twitter by liberal use of the “block” function; she has also clarified that “I didn’t write that dreadful headline”, although when the article went online she quoted it to advertise her piece without any misgivings (Tweet later deleted, but noted by others and screengrabbed). She has also expressed the view that “Part of my work is to explain behaviours on a daily basis. No ethical code broken. My views were considered and far less unkind than certain ‘professionals’ now trolling me”. As well as this, she has RTed supportive comments from journalist associates, so in all likelihood we can look forward to future articles framed along the lines of “expert commentator abused by vile trolls” or similar.

Last month she lent her name to Hive, a “smart home provider”, with comments about the benefits of “restoring order in your home” for a press release that found its way into the Sun via a “survey” hook (a lame but regularly successful PR strategy).

UPDATE: A forensic psychologist named Kerry Daynes, who has also has a media profile, says that “I’ve been asked by various media to write/contribute to articles accusing Meghan Markle of manipulation, coercive control, exploiting Harry’s mental health struggles etc. I say no to this🐴$&!£. Shame others don’t.”

Giles Coren Exits Twitter, Blaming Owen Jones: Some Notes

From Times columnist Giles Coren:

Yesterday morning, after eleven mostly unhappy and pointless years, I left Twitter.

… a piece in The Times carried a quote from me about a Labour activist and Guardian writer called Owen Jones, whom I didn’t know was gay, that Jones declared on Twitter to be homophobic. He has a million followers. They agreed with him. They piled on.

… But over the weekend Jones’s followers tweeted “we’ve found your address” and yesterday morning a group of them went round to my house, while I was at work, and started haranguing my wife and children.

Thus in one bound, the criticism that Coren received from the target of his “joke” is conveniently re-framed as harassment. The victim narrative has been taken at face value by many on Twitter, with one of Paul Staines’s minions, writing as “Media Guido”, announcing that “Giles Coren has left Twitter after a posse of Owen Jones followers turned up at his house to abuse him and instead found only his wife and children to harangue”.

Taking this as their cue, others now accuse Jones of having orchestrated criticism that apparently escalated into harassment. Toby Young (previously blogged here) Tweeted in reply to Media Guido that “The reason I’m setting up the free speech union is, in part, to protect people like Giles from being bullied and harassed by outrage mobs for making ‘inappropriate’ jokes.” How this “protection” will work in practice is unclear, but presumably it will involve inhibiting the targets of celebrity commentators (whether a rival public figure or a member of the public) from answering back – an indicator of the bad faith behind Young’s pose.

The joke was published in The Times on 31 December; Coren had imagined Jones “becoming a fat old lord… chasing young researchers with tight bottoms up and down the corridors”. Men and women can both have “tight bottoms” that some may find attractive, but Jones is well-known as being gay and it was reasonable to interpret Coren’s focus on this particular anatomical feature as a stereotypical description of predatory and rampant gay lechery. Jones wrote:

Not exactly subtle homophobia being printed by @thetimes, is it? (1) Expect a lot more like this. The election result is being interpreted as a mandate to say anything and everything about minorities – or to end the “yoke of the woke”, as one “moderate” columnist put it. (2)

Others agreed, not because Jones had “declared” this, but because that would seem to be the context. However, as well as saying that he did not know that Jones is gay, Coren also stated on Twitter that his joke was “an old trope about lecherous peers pinching researchers’ arses”. He added that “I’ve never made a homophobic comment in my life”. If we take Coren at his word, then, it was a joke that misfired due to circumstances about the target that were unknown to the joke maker. Fair enough, but Jones has every right to feel aggrieved, even though the “Free Speech” crowd apparently believe he should have kept it to himself rather than use his free speech to respond.

Looking through Twitter, Coren received a number of condemnatory and critical remarks (some of which were crudely abusive) in response to people becoming aware of his public writing, but it was hardly a deluge. One person, a man in Liverpool with 325 followers, Tweeted that “Someone’s published your address”- as far as I can see, this Tweet, which did not get any RTs or “Likes”, appears to be sole basis for the alleged link between Twitter critics and whoever it was who went around to Coren’s home. We know nothing of how big this group was or what the alleged “haranguing” involved, although one right-wing online commentator (the ludicrous Jay Beecher) framed the story as “OWEN Jones Supporters Target Journalist’s WIFE AND KIDS – Vile Left-Wing Thugs Lay Siege To Family Home”.

Jones has since responded to Coren’s new column, stating:

If people went to Coren’s house that’s unacceptable and he should report to the police with my full support. I will never condone intimidation or harassment, and it’s not done in my name. But I won’t apologise for calling out media homophobia or the targeting of minorities. 1/2. Legitimate criticism is not the same as incitement or bullying, and we should all call out bigotry where we find it. 2/2

This is unlikely to appease those who find it useful to amplify Coren’s narrative, and some opponents will deploy a popular obtuse rhetorical pose in which it is asserted that the use of the conjunction “but” following a statement should be understood as indicating that the statement was not really meant, and is about to be qualified away into a more ethically ambiguous position.

Writing on Medium, Jones further notes

Abuse is conflated with ‘politicians being challenged over policies they’ve implemented which affect millions of people’ and ‘journalists having their work scrutinised’.

…I’ve experienced this myself: I’ve been accused of orchestrating ‘pile-ons’ for defending myself against a homophobic ‘joke’ of a Times columnist or sharing the work of an investigative journalist highlighting the links between a pro-water privatisation MP and the private water industry (one twitter user compiled an amusing list of examples, ranging from me challenging someone for celebrating me being abused by fascists to literally just replying to defend myself against bizarre quote tweets, a common occurrence). 

Footnote

It is relevant to note that Coren has a history of constructing victim narratives that involve distorting what other people have written about him. Earlier last month, his Times column was a justification of crude abuse he had previously hurled at the Guardian‘s Michael White (who wasn’t named) on Twitter, including a grotesque paedo-smear; thus behaviour that is normally condemned in newspapers as the mark of the “vile troll” was here presented as a reasonable reaction when a celebrity is offended by what other people have written about them.

White, as a newspaper diarist, had made several teasing comments suggesting that Coren owes his position in public life to the fact that his father Alan Coren was famous, and this seems to have hit a nerve. Giles Coren framed this as “a man I’d never met, full of rage that I have work at all, blaming it all on my increasingly long dead father”. Coren also referred to

a newspaper article asserting that I had had sexual relations with Ruth Kelly, then the transport secretary, a woman of devout Catholic belief.

However, when I checked the source I found the following:

Someone else tells me that Ruth Kelly went out with Giles Coren, the youthful hereditary humourist, when they were both pupils at Westminster School…

There is no “assertion” here, and “sexual relations” in Coren’s version is obviously meant to imply an adult sexually consummated affair rather than teenage dating. Such a deliberate distortion indicates we should regard his claims of mistreatment with caution.

An Unnamed Labour MP and an Allegation against a Chief Constable

A bit of unfinished business from autumn 2017:

We were all in the Strangers’ Bar [in the Houses of Parliament]. The young victim was holding a phone and looking through pictures online, looking for someone else. Suddenly s/he screamed, dropped the phone and stood there shaking and crying, saying ‘it’s him, it’s him!’ The picture on the screen was that of a serving Chief Constable. It was a very real and spontaneous reaction.

This a quote that was attributed to an unnamed MP in a story run by the left-wing website The Skwawkbox. The incident had apparently occurred in January 2017, nine months before the story ran, and the Skwawkbox story followed a Tweet from the journalist (and advocate of Carl Beech) Mark Watts stating that “I can reveal that a chief constable has been interviewed under caution icw allegations of sexual abuse of a child.” The accuser is described as “a young adult who had suffered sexual abuse since childhood”, and the context implies that he or she had for the first time identified someone encountered years before. I discussed the account here.

Since then there has been no follow-up, although Watts drew an adverse inference from lack of progress a year later, writing “In Britain, the authorities are far more worried about a chief constable’s explanation for a broken mobile phone than another chief constable’s alleged role in child sexual abuse” – this was a reference to the disciplinary action taken against then Chief Constable Mike Veale for lying about how he came to smash his mobile phone (discussed here).

Given that it is now three years since the incident in Parliament, it is reasonable to assume that the allegation against the unnamed Chief Constable has been dropped as unsubstantiated; perhaps it has even been debunked, although it is often difficult to positively disprove a vaguely formulated historic accusation. If there were any loose ends, presumably Watts would have made an issue of them. Some people, of course, may suspect that a Chief Constable accused of child sex abuse might enjoy corrupt protection, but the fate of Gordon Anglesea is evidence against drawing such a conclusion.

The question here, though, concerns the MP. There is something off about an MP using their status to amplify a dramatic allegation with serious implications for public confidence in the integrity of the police, yet being unwilling to put their name to it. It is reasonable to assume from the Skwawkboxs politics that the quote was provided by a Labour MP, and their identity is of some continuing public interest given the upcoming Labour Party leadership contest. This is something the candidates ought to be asked about.

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”.

 

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.