On May 25th the internet magazine Spiked published an article by Barbara Hewson – The family courts make a mockery of justice‘. She published a tweet with a link to that article. I saw this and attempted to enter into discussion with her on this public forum, as one of the family lawyers she had dismissed en masse as ‘collusive’ and ‘incompetent’. Her response was immediate and aggressive, she told me to go to bed and ‘blocked’ my account. I responded in manner that was mocking and rude. I am sorry about that. It was fun at the time but it wasn’t constructive and it did nothing to bridge the gap between our positions.
I published a more reflective response via my blog on May 27th ‘The woeful state of our debate about the family courts part 7: Barbara Hewson’
If I thought Ms Hewson’s initial response to my tweets was bizarre, what followed this blog post was even worse. She made two formal complaints to my Chambers and – astonishingly – directly tweeted a number of prominent Jewish lawyers and journalists to inform them I was an Anti-Semite. She later deleted those tweets – suggesting she realized she had gone too far. But of course, on the internet nothing is ever really deleted.
Freedom of speech – not just for the speech you agree with.
However, a much more serious issue emerged from our unedifying ‘spat’. This was Ms Hewson’s determined efforts to reduce the audience for my blog post. To understand my concern, it is important to note that Ms Hewson is not your typical abusive keyboard warrior, with limited following or influence. Not only is she a practising barrister, she is also a prominent contributor for Spiked.
Spiked describe their ‘mission statement’ in this way (emphasis added):
It’s the publication that puts the case for human endeavour, intellectual risk-taking, exploration, excellence in learning and art, and freedom of speech with no ifs and buts, against the myriad miserabilists who would seek to wrap humans in red tape, dampen down our daring, restrain our thoughts, and police our speech.
Well said. If ‘freedom of speech’ is reduced to ‘freedom to say things I agree with’, it is no freedom at all. Sadly, Ms Hewson does not seem to share Spiked’s enthusiasm for freedom of speech. She alleged that my blog post was both ‘inaccurate’ and ‘defamatory’. However, and interestingly, she didn’t make those allegations directly to me or request that I amend the post or take it down.
Shortly after publication of my post on Friday 27th May I sent a tweet with a link, as is my normal practice. It was retweeted by a number of others.
Ms Hewson sent an email to those who retweeted on Bank Holiday Sunday May 29th, demanding that they ‘un-do’ their retweet. When some of the recipients asked – not unreasonably – to be informed what exactly was defamatory about my post, Ms Hewson not only refused to give details but replied to say that she would consider joining them in her proposed legal action against me. And this could carry consequences in terms of costs.
Entirely unsurprisingly, that threat worked and my tweet was subsequently ‘un-retweeted’.
Then, in the second of her formal complaints to my Chambers, Ms Hewson declared that she was giving serious consideration to informing the police of my activities on Twitter.
After I had picked myself up from the floor, to which I had fallen laughing, I got quite angry. This was after all quite an effective tactic of intimidation. Not because she frightened me, but because she was now putting my Chambers to considerable annoyance and fuss in attempting to sort out a complaint that – in my view – was without substance and which should never have been made. The suggestion that anything in my conduct on line or elsewhere merited the involvement of the police was absurd. That the suggestion was made by someone in her position is very worrying.
The Streisand effect
Ms Hewson’s efforts at indirect censorship did not have the desired effect of keeping my views out of circulation. She seems unhappily ignorant of the Streisand effect, where there is a direct correlation between the efforts you put in to keeping something hidden and the extra publicity for the hidden thing you generate by those very efforts.
Between May 27th and June 2nd that ‘defamatory’ post was the most popular on my website. And people weren’t just glancing at it – they were reading it. The post was seen 553 times during that period and the average time spent on the page was 6 minutes and 16 seconds. My original tweet containing a link to the blog post has now been seen 2,043 times and is my third ‘top tweet’ for the month of May. To put this in context, my tweets usually get about 300 impressions. The blog post has been ‘shared’ on line 242 times.
I have no idea how that compares to the analytics for Spiked on line. But its pretty good for my site.
Through out all of this I remain in the dark about what is defamatory about what I wrote. I suspect it is not that Ms Hewson is unwilling to tell me – but that she is unable to tell me. Because my original blog post isn’t defamatory. And I am more than happy to defend it in open court.
Debate and discussion – now dead in the water?
But what on earth are we coming to when the honest expression of an opinion about something significant – the family court system – meets with this response? This means that the debate about the family justice system isn’t merely ‘woeful’ as I have long feared, but is dead in the water.
For those who seek a public platform to publish and promote their views, bravery must go hand in hand with good judgment and reflection. Otherwise ‘bravery’ can easily slip into bullying cruelty on line or even worse – into a reckless assault upon our essential freedoms. The greater the status and influence of the person seeking to restrict others’ freedom of speech, the greater the danger that person poses.
Of course our freedoms are not limitless. The rights of your fist end where my nose begins. We have to engage in constant and sensitive recallibrations of our freedoms and our responsibilities and how they intertwine.
But I suggest that any attempts to limit the activities of your fist vis a vis my nose should come from the law , not the wrath of an individual. The criminal law can deal with threats and harassment, the civil law can deal with defamation. A further avenue for those of us in regulated professions can be to make complaint to the appropriate regulatory body.
Respect for essential freedoms cannot turn simply on whether a particular individual is upset and offended. The evil consequences of that are very clear. I agree Ms Hewson’s right to be wrong must be protected. I have disagreed with her – not attempted to silence her or get her arrested. But sadly, it seems she does not accord me the same respect and seeks to erode my freedom of speech in a particularly heavy handed and unpleasant way.
Bullying isn’t great – but hypocrisy is worse
Ms Hewson’s attempts to intimidate do not deflect me. At the time of writing it’s June 17th (and at the time of publication it’s August 13th 2016) and I haven’t been arrested or received any court papers, so I will assume her threats are empty. But I also reasonably assume that others of less robust temperament in my shoes over the last few weeks would have been very frightened and distressed. Even a cursory search of her name on Twitter shows that many others already have been frightened and distressed by her behavior on line.
Spiked may value this kind of behaviour from Ms Hewson as adding to their ‘edgy’ reputation. But I hope not. Rather, I hope that this whole sorry tale gives them some pause for thought about exactly whom they wish to support as a contributor to their site.
The family justice system impacts on the lives of many. It tries to protect the vulnerable against the imposition of unfair or abusive interference with their private lives, from either the State or other individuals. That it functions well is necessary. That it often falls short of what we need is sadly clear and worthy of debate.
No one has the right to try and stifle open and honest debate about something so important. Not least someone who claims to support freedom of speech.
I can understand, in a world where humans routinely make decisions to bomb children and hospitals or permit the mentally ill to buy military grade assault rifles to more easily murder cartoonists or gay people, my ruffled feathers over this may seem to some quite unimportant.
And you are entitled to that view – I won’t threaten you or telephone your boss if you express it. But I think it is important to challenge this kind of behaviour. Because this is how our essential freedoms are eroded, little by little and drop by drop. Until when the time comes that we wake up to what we have lost, there may be nothing left at all to defend.