You’ve received widespread acclaim for Barristerblogger, including the Independent Blogger of the Year award at the 2015 Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. How would you characterise yourself?
I am proud to be an ordinary criminal barrister. Despite the best efforts of governments of all colours, and the often ill-concealed opprobrium of many people who should know better, there are still thousands of us working away in crown courts up and down the country, playing a part in a flawed but still just-about-functioning justice system. If the David Pannicks and Dinah Roses are Derby and Oaks winners, we are the rest: the promising two-year-olds, the honest handicappers and, yes, the selling-platers you will see on a wet Monday afternoon at Market Rasen.
And once we stop working others, younger, brighter and bubbling with enthusiasm appear to take up the strain, which is of course as it should be. The old hack is soon forgotten: if they ever come back it is usually as a confused and broken-winded nag permitted to eke out a half-life in mentions and probation breaches, the barristerial equivalent of giving donkey rides on Blackpool beach.
When did inspiration for the blog first strike?
In 2013 my 15-year-old daughter became ill and I found that I was unable to go to court for week after week. I thought that if I started a blog then some solicitors might not completely forget about me when I was eventually able to return to full-time work. Fortunately, the start of the blog pretty much coincided with Chris Grayling’s appointment as Lord Chancellor and the battle royal over legal aid, which provided plenty of material to write about as well as a sympathetic audience.
In what ways do you feel your blog has, so far, been influential?
I don’t think many blogs have much of an influence on their own. But taken as a whole the bloggers who wrote about Mr Grayling’s cuts to criminal legal aid – and there were many of us – did help to keep the subject higher on the news agenda than it would otherwise have been. Without us things might have been even worse.
I also think that legal bloggers generally, and particularly the more cerebral ones such as Adam Wagner, David Allen Green and Professor Mark Elliott, have done an excellent job in identifying the problems that the government faces in its attempt to repeal the Human Rights Act. If I have brought anything to that debate it has only been to emphasise that it is possible to be on the right of politics, and yet still broadly supportive of the Act and the European Convention.
The beauty of a blog is that you can choose when and what to write about. Apart from the legal aid issue, I have tried to post on the things about which I feel strongly, including human rights, miscarriages of justice, the nastiness and futility of our prison system, and the ways in which otherwise sensible people continue to believe in highly improbable conspiracy theories. Among the more widely read posts were those about Operation Midland, the investigation into the so-called VIP paedophile and murder ring which was said to have infested Westminster in the 1970s and 1980s. As it turned out to be [unsubstantiated], it was very damaging for the individuals investigated, and for the reputation of the police and certain journalists.
What compels you to sit down and write, and how do you find the space and time?
Notoriously barristers like the sound of our own voices. Having a blog means nobody can shut you up.
Then, once it’s started, a blog is like one of those Tamagotchi electronic pets that were so popular in the 1990s: if you haven’t fed it for a few days visitor numbers drop off and you start to feel sorry for it. The internet is littered with moribund blogs and I would be sad to see Barristerblogger join them, though eventually of course it will.
I tend to blog early in the morning or late at night, waiting for a train or sitting around in court.
You recently blogged some emergency legal advice for Helen Titchener of Radio 4’s The Archers. What was the thinking behind this?
The most difficult thing is constantly having to find new subjects to write about. Along with thousands of other people I had been drawn into the Helen/Rob story in The Archers over the last few months. It has been gripping melodramatic radio at its best. I was listening on Sunday evening to the stabbing episode and immediately thought that Helen could do with some emergency legal advice, preferably before the next episode. Electrification of the Bath to Bristol line meant travelling to work by bus the next day. This could have been a dreary 60 minutes instead of the usual 12 minutes on the train. Fortunately First Bus has excellent wifi (far better than GWR) so it was possible to write the advice on the way there and post it on the way back, before knowing whether Rob was dead or alive. Without the bus journey I doubt I would have had the time to write it, and certainly not before another blogger had had a similar idea.
Interest in Helen’s legal plight remained very high, and both The Times and The Telegraph wanted updates as the story developed.
Do you have a typical reader in mind when you write and what is the blog’s reach?
I try to write for the reasonably intelligent layperson rather than particularly for lawyers. That said, I have also done my best to give some hints on advocacy which are aimed at pupils and very young advocates. I have no pretensions to being a great advocate but I think I have seen enough of both good and bad to be able to pass on some useful advice.
As to the ‘reach’ of the blog, the simple answer is that I have no idea. I have two widgets – or possibly plug-ins – configured to count views and viewers and they never agree, in fact they rarely come close to each other. On one measure the blog has had nearly 4.5m views, on another it has had 365,000 – although admittedly that was from a plug-in that stopped working for several months. All I know is that it has probably had somewhere between 400,000 and 4.5m hits.
You note that ‘criminal law is a subject on which everyone has their opinion, unlike the finer points of landlord and tenant law’. Has this proved to be a blessing or a curse?
Definitely a blessing. Lawyers are in a minority among the commenters on the blog. Undiluted law can become rather an indigestible topic both to read and to write about.
I always enjoy the comments and I try to edit them as little as possible, although some can be robust. For example, a post about a non-existent Satanic abuse ring at my children’s former primary school produced nearly 200 comments including observations that I was: a pathetic nonce cover-up gatekeeper/shill and apologist; quite likely a part of the paedophile ring; revolting.
On the more positive side I also had a mildly supportive comment from an actual Satanist, or so he claimed.
If we are living in a ‘golden age for journalism’, what do you consider the constituents of a quality blog, and what advice would you give to any would-be blawygers?
It needs to be kept topical and lively. It’s far better to be opinionated and read than dull and ignored. Don’t seek out controversy for its own sake, but on the other hand don’t be too afraid of it.
Don’t start a blog unless you are sure you will have time to keep it active. Blogging takes up a surprisingly large amount of time, and sometimes you have to seize the moment.
If you can, always get somebody else to read what you have written before you post. Better to be embarrassed in front of one person than in front of thousands.
Try to get in guest bloggers from time to time. This will relieve some of the pressure on you, and make your blog more interesting and varied.
Don’t try to promote yourself or your firm too much. Nothing is more off-putting than blogs that consist of a long list of cases won and triumphs achieved. The only case of mine on Barristerblogger is a rather unusual one: Stephen Gough, the eccentric and courageous Naked Rambler; along with many other lawyers I have done my best to help him, but so far my efforts have been marked by a complete absence of success.
The libel laws will be a constant worry, more so for a blogger perhaps than for a newspaper. Be careful because you are always just a punctuation mark away from financial annihilation.
Has the creation of the blog helped raise the profile of your practice or chambers?
I have had various instructions through the blog, and it’s also enabled me to write regularly for both The Times and The Telegraph. I would hope that on balance it has been helpful to chambers.
What blogs (legal and otherwise) do you yourself follow and why?
Lots of them, and I have got myself into trouble by recommending some which can – but isn’t meant to – imply that others aren’t so good. With that in mind, and sticking to the criminal law, The Secret Barrister and My Mid-Life Crisis have recently joined A View from the North as excellent blogs written by criminal barristers. The highly authoritative UK Criminal Law Blog written by barristers Dan Bunting, Lyndon Harris and Sara Williams tends to express its opinions more cautiously. No mention of criminal law blogs would be complete without saying something about the astonishingly good and informative PrisonUK; it’s beautifully written by Alex Cavendish, an ex-prisoner who also knows a lot about the law. Short of getting yourself ‘rehabilitated’ by getting someone to lock you up for several years in a toilet cubicle with a mentally ill crack addict for company, this blog is probably the best way to appreciate the boring, squalid and largely self-defeating objective to which most criminal trials are dedicated.
Contributor Matthew Scott, Pump Court Chambers