Blogger profile: The Secret Barrister

Counsel interviews The Secret Barrister, who started out as a counterweight to media misinformation and is the third legal commentator in a row named Independent Blogger of the Year (Comment Awards 2016)

Where did the inspiration come from for the blog?

Inspiration was forced upon me by a partner tired of listening to my daily diatribes, who politely but firmly suggested I start a Twitter account and companion blog in order to share my thoughts with, in their words, ‘anyone but me’. It also struck me how, notwithstanding that there is a plethora of brilliant legal writing online, the profession still struggles to get its messages heard over the din of political misinformation and public misunderstanding, and I rather vainly thought that I might be able to redress the imbalance by adding my reedy voice into the mix.

What compels you to sit down and write?

I have always loved writing in one form or another. It provides a much-needed outlet into which to channel the views and frustrations that would otherwise be visited on blameless family and friends. Primarily, I’d say that I am compelled by a desire that the public be better informed, and ideally enthused, about law and justice. It is public miseducation and apathy that has permitted recent governments to wantonly vandalise the justice system to such devastating effect.

In your head when you write, who are you talking to?

My target audience is the reasonably well-informed and curious non-lawyer. I don’t pretend to be a towering intellectual authority, and there are far better lawyers writing specialist blogs; instead I aim to write for lay people who have an interest in how law and justice works – and how it often does not – and who want a counterweight to the often hysterical misreporting in the press. Invariably, writing about matters of legal interest attracts barristers and solicitors too, the feedback from whom has been invaluable. Although what I write is inevitably political, I like to think that there’s something there for everyone. That’s the significance, of criminal justice – it affects everybody, and everybody does care. They sometimes just don’t realise they care until it’s brought to their attention, by which time it might be too late. Guardian readers might be appalled at illiberal laws proposed by tinpot MPs; Daily Mail readers would no doubt be aghast to learn that, as a consequence of recent reforms, they could be falsely accused of a criminal offence, found to be ineligible for legal aid, forced to pay for private representation, and then when acquitted unable to claim back the fees they’ve paid. I like to think I cater for all.

Who is your actual audience now that the blog has developed and what is the reach of the blog?

The blog has in the past year had half a million visitors which I find mind boggling. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had pieces featured in the New Statesman, Independent and Solicitors Journal, and a recent blog about the Ched Evans case was also published by The Sun and The Mirror, all of which has helped raise the blog’s profile. The comments and feedback I’ve received suggest that readers include legal professionals, court staff, students, MPs, journalists and broadcasters, but I’d estimate that the majority is comprised of normal people interested in current affairs and criminal justice.

What sort of dialogue has developed with your audience?

Mostly, the interactivity has been very positive. Inevitably there will be the odd person who decides to offer the generous observation that I’m a scum-of-the-earth liberal elite fat cat gorging myself on taxpayer cream while unpatriotically defending guilty kiddy-fiddlers, but in the main the interaction on Twitter and in the blog comments is good natured and constructive. Comments sometimes inform what I write about next or steer me back on track if I start to lose perspective from atop my high horse.

What do you currently want to achieve with the blog?

I didn’t start with any particular goal other than the vague hope that someone might read the blog. As it has progressed, I’ve developed more of an evangelical streak. As the Lord Chief Justice has recently said (in slightly more sober terms), public education about law and the justice system is appalling. It is not valued in schools, and unless you specifically choose to study or practise its operation, your understanding of what underpins our civilisation is likely to be largely informed by politicians and the media. While there are some politicians who both understand and represent the legal system extremely well, and some mainstream journalists – like Joshua Rozenberg and David Allen Green – who are superb, general legal coverage is poor. MPs are increasingly guilty of misrepresenting how the law operates in order to secure some short-term political advantage, and the joy of Twitter and blogging is that the bloody-minded (like me) can instantly offer a corrective, and it can be distributed with the same ease and speed as the original misnomer. It is limited in scope of course – Twitter is but a tiny bubble, and my blog is a freckle within – but if it reaches some people, it perhaps undoes a little damage.

You describe your tone, a bit tongue in cheek, as a ‘general tone of cynical nihilism’. What’s the trigger for the grey-tinted spectacles?

Initially, I’d intended the blog to be a little more diverse tonally, but it has recently dipped into a default cynicism. I don’t know whether it’s a creeping malaise of pessimism that accompanies growing older, but I do think that recent years have represented a nadir for justice, and access to justice. People have been foretelling the death of the criminal Bar for decades, but recently I sense a very real fear. I’ve seen many good people – barristers and solicitors – leave the stage. The impact of devastating cuts is on display daily in crime – viable prosecutions collapsing because of the unbearable pressure on the CPS; defendants corralled into making life-changing decisions on plea without sight of what would once have been considered fundamental evidence and disclosure; the ‘stack-em high, sell ‘em cheap’ ethos of the magistrates’ courts being rolled out in the Crown court. It’s troubling.

Why do you write anonymously?

Anonymity buys more freedom to write forthrightly about the justice system and its players. It also allows the arguments to be presented without any appeal to authority (or, more accurately, lack of authority) that I might be perceived as possessing. All that I think is relevant to engaging with what I write is the knowledge that I am a junior criminal barrister.

One blogger Counsel interviewed said blogging was a Martini activity in that it could be done anytime, anyplace; when do you find the time?

The joy of technology is that you can now even blog from your smartphone. Travel time can usefully be filled. Evenings, to the detriment of my family, often fall prey. When I was starting out, it was easy to do a little light blogging in robing rooms while waiting listlessly for a floating trial to be called on; nowadays I have to be a little more circumspect in case anyone curiously peers over my shoulder.

How and in what ways do you feel your blog has, so far, been influential?

Influential is rather a grand term for what I do. I hope to inform. The best possible feedback one can get (other than a compliment from Matthew Scott or David Allen Green) is when someone says, ‘You’ve made me think about that subject in a different way.’ The recent hullabaloo over Ched Evans’ acquittal was a good example of that; a number of people, who had plainly visited the blog with a preformed view of what the verdict meant – the complainant was a ‘proven liar’, or Evans was ‘proved innocent’, or the verdict ‘set a dangerous precedent’ – left comments that they had had their preconceptions challenged. That is what I would like to continue to do. That, and pull up public figures when they try to mislead about the law.

You wrote about the recent attacks on the judiciary, saying ‘a starker, more blatant attack on the judiciary is hard to conceive’. Has the tone of nihilism grown stronger?

I’m afraid that it has. Whatever side one took on the referendum, what I think is indisputable is that public discourse has since taken on a much darker, nastier edge. To me, it reeks of an infusion of a pernicious nationalism, and we have been treated to a divisive, dishonest appeal to our baser instincts by newspapers and politicians who should all know better. The ‘Enemies of the People’ episode was probably the lowest point. That we had the personal lives of the senior judiciary mockingly splashed across the tabloids, allied to utterly baseless, repeated claims of political bias, and politicians taking to the airwaves to demand that judges be ‘brought under control’, and a Lord Chancellor sitting by mute, I still find staggering. Her refusal to mount anything approaching a meaningful defence of judicial independence or the rule of law was shameful. Not because of the judges themselves – I am sure they are plenty robust – but because of the false, corrosive impression that such smears leave in the public’s mind. Once faith in the independent judiciary melts, it cannot easily be reformed. The Lord Chancellor’s muted public statement following the Supreme Court decision in Miller suggested that she is belatedly coming to grasp the meaning of her oath; however the media hysteria had by that time largely subsided. The true test of mettle came when the hounds were unleashed after the High Court ruling, and on that occasion, given the choice of upholding her oath or shoring up political and media support, the Lord Chancellor was found sorely wanting.

Your evisceration in 17 tweets of Iain Duncan Smith’s Daily Mail op-ed on the ‘faux anger’ at scrutiny of the Supreme Court Justices in Miller struck huge accord.

The upper hand will always remain with the politicians with direct access to large media platforms, but I think that the immediacy of Twitter and blogging permits a guerrilla response strategy that didn’t exist a decade ago. As I say, I’m loathe to tout myself as ‘influential’; but if someone who was inclined to take IDS on trust saw my response and it caused them to pause and reflect, I like to think we’re a little closer to steering people towards the truth.

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