One of the most important qualities a barrister needs is courage, and nobody can accuse Barbara Hewson of lacking it, although it is not obvious that she has the same amount of wisdom.
Her characterisation of Operation Yewtree as “an inquisition,” her likening of it to Soviet style justice, her description of Stuart Hall’s crimes as “low level misdemeanours,” her call for a statute of limitations, and most of all her call for the age of consent to be lowered to 13 have attracted fire from all sides, including even her own chambers which has described itself as “shocked” by her article in Spiked.
Some of those who say they are the most shocked have been the most intemperate in their responses. Twitter is alive with people calling down anathemas, and one of the more popular (and generous) responses has been the assertion that she is “an apologist for rape”. Even more unpleasantly, others have descended to vile abuse, a stand up comedian calling her amongst other things a “rancid petulant amoral c…” (it’s the way he tells ’em), and from some arch-moralists there have been calls for her to be raped herself, to bring home to her the errors of her thinking.
Such disgusting comments support the general thrust of her argument that there is far too much hysteria about the subject, and whilst I disagree with much of what she said, it is of the utmost importance that her right to say it should be defended.
Let us be clear about a few things. Barbara Hewson is not an apologist for rape. I have read and re-read her article and it does not in any way seek to justify rape. She does discuss Stuart Hall’s case, but Mr Hall has not pleaded guilty or been convicted of rape, of a child or anyone else. We have not in fact had a very full account of exactly what he did., According to the BBC possibly the most serious offence was molesting “a nine year old girl by putting his hand up her skirt.” His other offences seem to have involved older girls whom he molested either by forcing his kisses on them, them, or by grabbing their breasts. There was indeed a charge of rape, but this was not proceeded with after the complainant decided not to give evidence in the light of his other pleas. We have a presumption of innocence so it is not right to call Stuart Hall a rapist.
Now to describe these offences as “low level misdemeanours” is indeed to minimise their seriousness, and certainly very foolish, especially when we still know so little of what actually happened. They sound like very nasty offences, well able to cause lasting damage. But they do fall quite a long way short of rape in law.
She calls for the lowering of the age of consent to 13. One can strongly disagree with Ms Hewson about that, as I do, but to advocate it does not make her “an apologist for rape.” The age of consent differs from country to country. Here it is 16. In Turkey it is 18. Other perfectly civilised countries – France, Sweden, Italy – have lower ages of consent than we do. In Spain it is 13, albeit hedged about with various provisos. There is a respectable argument that adolescents of roughly the same age ought not to be criminalised for sexual activity with each other, which would presuppose at least a partial lowering of the age of consent.
Ms Hewson makes the sensible point that the criminal process cannot be treated as therapy. The purpose of a criminal trial is not to enable everyone to sympathise with anyone who claims to have been a victim. The purpose is to punish the guilty and exonerate the innocent. Unfortunately, she then spoils her good point by a clumsy comparison with the Soviet criminal system. To compare our justice system to that of the Soviet Union is absurd. Perhaps Ms Hewson should read rather less Furedi (who she cites repeatedly) and rather more of the Gulag Archipelago.
She suggests a statute of limitations, such that no criminal or civil action can be taken after the passage of many years. That is something that is regarded as almost axiomatic in some countries. For what it is worth, I think she is wrong again, although there are some reasons for believing that the courts ought to be more ready than they are to find that, in some cases, a fair trial is not possible after thirty or forty years.
She calls for anonymity for complainants to be abolished. Strictly speaking there is no such thing as “anonymity” for complainants: the accused (who needs to know) is told the name of the complainant, it is just that their public identification is prohibited. I see nothing wrong with that, and what is more I would extend it to those who have been accused of sex crimes. It seems, although perhaps she is not crystal clear, that she believes that even child complainants should be publicly identified, another ridiculous position, in my view.
But the fact that we may strongly disagree with Ms Hewson does not begin to justify the sort of abuse that she has received.
Freedom of speech within the law is one of our most vital freedoms. Ms Hewson has said nothing illegal, she has libeled no-one, she has not incited hatred against anyone, she has not attempted to justify rape. She has unpopular opinions about an inflammatory subject and she has expressed them. She must not be silenced by the mob.
(There is a very sensible piece here concentrating in more detail on the Twitter reaction to Ms Hewson’s article)