In the aftermath of the Jimmy Savile revelations and the recent guilty plea by Stuart Hall to charges of indecent assault (including a 9 year old girl) there are many questions facing the BBC. Many who grew up during that time may now be asking themselves who wasn’t involved in such vile conduct. That Savile did not face trial for his conduct must be distressing for his victims. Hall will be sentenced soon; anything less that a custodial sentence will surely cause outrage. Matthew Norman in the Telegraph writes a balanced piece on why, despite his age, Hall must go to prison. I am on record as saying that the law must be enforced where it has been broken, as it usually seems to be.
Therefore it was extremely disturbing to read Barbara Hewson’s comments on Spiked Online which were reported by a number of news websites. To say they were ill-considered and offensive is putting it mildly.
Now it may be common in the legal field to discuss highly charged, contraversial and potentially explosive issues in the privacy of chambers, but to advocate lowering the age of consent and justify non-consensual actions against underaged girls on public website is surely marching into the land of utter stupidity and planting a flag in the capital city.
I am fortunate in that I have not had to endure sexual abuse. Others have and Hewson’s dismissal of their experiences and their right to have their claims investigated is sickening. Hewson’s justification of Hall’s conduct, saying that it was not as bad as behaviour in the 1880s comes across a callous attempt to hide the fact that what Hall did to these girls was indecent assault. To argue that the law should not take its course when people have reached a certain age will surely offend those involved in the search for remaining Nazi war criminals.
The widespread reporting of Hewson’s comments has generated quite a response on social networks, expressing similar repugnance to my own and showing a number of stories and responses. Fleet Street Fox wrote a response in The Mirror. A survivor of child sexual abuse wrote an open letter to Hewson which is deserving of repeated reads. There will be other responses too, all of them deserving of your time and attention.
It bemuses and sickens me that someone as intelligent as Hewson, a holder of qualifications and awards and years of experience in the legal field can write such a vile piece.
Hewson’s employers, Hardwicke Chambers, have issued a statement distancing themselves from her views, although searching their site for “Hewson” and “dissociate” doesn’t show any link to that statement (I found the link from searching through the backlash on Twitter). Hardly surprising given what Hewson said.
This gives rise to a question. The employment contracts I have seen over the last few years all make reference to not “publishing anything (in print or online) which brings negative publicity to the employer”, or wordings of a similar meaning. This is one occasion where Hardwicke Chambers have endured plenty of negative publicity. Certainly their reputation is taking a battering, and Hewson’s comments have been reported as far as Australia (warning, requires cookies to see article).
So whither Barbara Hewson’s future at Hardwicke Chambers and the future of legal persons’ use of the internet?
Legalcheek asks the latter part of this question, suggesting that this could be seen as a freedom of speech issue. I don’t think it is. The article says clearly that “Barbara Hewson is a barrister at Hardwicke in London”. Immediate association with the Chambers and therefore the potential suggestion that the Chambers also hold this view. Note that I say potential here.
There is no attempt at any kind of disclaimer or warning about the tone and content of the article. Hardwicke’s statement suggests that they were not given sight of the article beforehand. Had they been they may well have advised Hewson not to publish it in that form, or maybe not to publish it at all. Fellow Brummie David Allen Green comments below the Legalcheek article, suggesting that this may see the end of legal presences on social media. I’m not sure that is the case either.
On the freedom of speech issue: everyone is entitled to personal freedom of speech within reason and as defined by the law. Claiming that and saying something contraversial is one thing, provided you are doing it as a private citizen. To say something contraversial in your professional identity and having your employer associated with it is a different kettle of fish, especially when the employer hasn’t been given a heads up on the piece in the first place. The “bringing negative publicity to the employer” part of the contract of employment comes in to play.
On the ending of legal presences of social media, I hope that is not the case. There are legal people out there doing great work to educate those of us interested in legal matters, and doing so in a non-contraversial, non-confrontational way even if the issues they are dealing with could be seen as emotive. David Allen Green and Myles Jackman are two such people.
If there are debates to be had about contraversial issues then they need to be handled with much more sensitivity and sense than Barbara Hewson has shown. The brand damage caused to Hardwicke Chambers and to Hewson herself is considerable and won’t be forgotten. Bad news always travels faster than good news.