Reflections on media articles this weekend

I committed  many schoolboy errors in the 1970s, during my time at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I was a poor to middling scientist and mathematician (see my comments on encryption, below), an indifferent linguist, but a slightly better historian. I tried hard in all subjects, but have no doubt that many of my exam papers were strewn with errors great and small.

I thought those days were far behind me. Not so, according to the Sunday Times and their anonymous intelligence source in government. I asked the newspaper to reveal the identity of the  source, but they refused. Another schoolboy error. And along the way, according to the Sunday Times story, I lost my suffix QC, which took me 20 years to earn, but that’s life I guess.

In what I can only assume to be a ‘slow news weekend’, the end of the summer holidays for most of us has led to my recent interviews gaining considerable coverage, for which I am genuinely grateful.

The Evening Standard on Friday covered my views with the headline on page 6 ‘Tech giants must stop encrypted messages, says terror watchdog’. I didn’t say much that was worthy of the headline, but I did go so far as saying that it is worth having a debate about encryption, not to suggest that its use be suspended or stopped altogether, but to question whether there are technical solutions to the proliferation of extremist material online. There has been an interesting reaction on Twitter during the weekend, much of which has made for good reading. Let me make it clear, I defer to the experts in this area (middling scientist at school, I told you), but my words follow my speech at the Terrorism and Social Media Conference earlier in the summer, which I have just posted on this site this evening. Following that conference, I have engaged with at least one of the major tech companies and I look forward to learning more.

Also on Friday, the Independent picked up on a Press Association interview with me the previous day. The topic was a review of maximum sentences available in some of the terrorism offences already contained within our legislation. Regrettably, because I did not speak to the Independent at all this week, their journalists covered the interview with the headline ‘Terrorists’ families should be jailed if they fail to alert authorities, say’s Government’s top terror adviser’. This is misleading in two respects; firstly, I do not work for the government, and secondly I said nothing to the Press Association about locking up terrorists’ families. Whilst the relatives of those who commit serious terrorist offences  – whether so-called Islamist offences, or extreme-right wing, or any other species of terrorism – are not immune from the legislation, they are not the target of the law and certainly not what I had in mind when speaking to the Press Association.

Schoolboy or not, I was appointed in March this year to review our terrorism legislation. This is no small task, as it includes all terrorism offences and their sentencing provisions, as well as arrest and detention powers which permit solitary confinement in special police custody units for up to 14 days without charge, not to mention the widely-known Schedule 7 powers to stop, question and detain travellers at any point of entry to or exit from the UK. And these matters are all derived from the Terrorism Acts. My role also requires annual review of terrorist asset-freezing provisions within the eponymous statute, as well as all matters pertaining to the instantly recognisable acronym TPIM, which needs no further explanation.

I come to this task after 30 years of legal practice as a barrister, 15 of which have included prosecuting more terrorism trials than almost anyone else, with my best wishes and deep respect to the small handful of fellow QCs who have shared that burden. This means that I have cross-examined more individuals who have been convicted of serious terrorism offences than the Sunday Times’ confidential source has had birthday cakes.

Experience is no guarantee of wisdom, of course. Let me be the first to admit that I have been lucky, and that all of my terrorism trials have benefitted from the support and hard work of other lawyers around me, who have made me look good in court. The credit for any of my successes is as much theirs as mine. And that is the point, success only comes with hard work, from sharing thought and preparation with others, from checking and re-checking every fact, every shred of evidence.

And so, on my appointment as Independent Reviewer on 1st March this year I realised straight away that I was going to have to work long and hard if my review of our legislation was going to be worthwhile. I have spent six months, almost to the day, trying to do just that, taking soundings from far and wide and across the spectrum of legal issues which my role demands. I spend time meeting politicians and civil servants whose work bears any relevance to mine. I have been to Scotland and Northern Ireland, talking to police officers and members of the intelligence services just as I do in England and Wales. I go to terrorism custody suites to visit detainees themselves in order to review their conditions and treatment. And I go wherever necessary around the country, particularly in light of the awful  attacks we have all witnessed starting with the terrorist murders on Westminster Bridge on  22nd March. I have been extremely fortunate to have been permitted  (no, it is more than that, I have been warmly welcomed, to my surprise and gratitude) to spend time with communities directly affected by the atrocities of 2017, including the UK citizens of Libyan heritage who live in Manchester and worship in the mosque formerly attended by the terrorist murderer who caused his own ignoble death at Manchester Arena.

But my work is far from done. I have a very long way to go, if I am to fully understand the impact of our terrorism legislation on all segments of British society, and thereby to make a useful contribution to the utility and efficacy of that legislation. That is my job, so it has to be done properly or not at all.

Although you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you read the Sunday Times article – or even just the front-page headline – I don’t believe everything people say to me. I try to assess what I hear, and to use a measure of common sense. Because I am a vainglorious barrister, used to the sound of my own voice in court, I am arrogant enough to write that I wouldn’t have got to where I am today without discarding most of the bad arguments and promoting most of the good ones. But don’t believe me just because I make this boast. Beware the shadow of a schoolboy, emerging behind the lawyer’s robe.

Because you are ultimately the judge and jury in the courtroom I now occupy as Independent Reviewer. I don’t answer to anyone else. Although most of the media (here I honourably exempt the Sunday Times) still like to call me ‘the government’s watchdog’ or similar, I am not employed by the government, nor the Home Office, nor any other organisation. I remain self-employed, working from my room in barristers chambers (making what use I can of the QC moniker denied to me by the Sunday Times), and sometimes using a locked room at the Home Office which they kindly make available for confidential briefings. Because I have no official designation as politician or civil servant, I can assure you that I do not make the law, nor do I set the policy of government in counter-terrorism. Those who bear such burdens, including the Home Office of course, set their own parameters for whom they meet and in what circumstances. And, for all I know, they are right to be careful lest granting an audience to a ‘radical’ group will lend unwarranted legitimacy to that group.

But those rules do not apply to me. I cannot confer legitimacy on any person or group. I am just  a lawyer, working on my own and in the same room from which I run my practice at Red Lion Chambers. If you want to know, I have a small budget which allows me to employ part-time a law student as my Assistant, as well as to hold out three zero-hours contracts to two fellow barristers and a law professor, each of whom provide enormously valuable though very part-time help in my work. I count myself lucky to have these three talented people on speed dial. But that is it.

So when I am called naive for even agreeing to meet an organisation like Cage, you will be the judge of such an initiative once I offer my annual report to Parliament (my reports go to the Home Secretary, who has a duty to table them in Parliament, something I cannot do being a member of neither House of Parliament), later this year. To me, offering to hold such a meeting is nothing more than considering the issues within our terrorism legislation from all sides. To me, I am doing nothing more than what every barrister does on a daily basis, which is to consider the evidence and sort out the bad from the good. And as the media know and you may recall, I am doing nothing more than my  predecessor David Anderson QC, who was not shy of taking on all-comers during his distinguished 6-year tenure as Independent Reviewer, including  Abu Qatada and even Cage itself.

But all of this may be bluster. I may still be the northern grammar school boy of the 1970s, getting it wrong by even contemplating meeting certain groups and individuals, throwing common sense to the wind along with 30 years’ experience as a barrister and more terrorism trials to my name than all of my predecessors put together.

It is hard to know, isn’t it? Could you bear to wait and see whether I am really the naive schoolboy as claimed? Or should I go straight into detention, perhaps with 100 lines to write out before any consideration of release: ‘I will not do my job. I am not independent. I am a lackey of government, of the Home Office, and I will only do what they do, and when they tell me.’ Well, for what it is worth, I have not received a word of criticism from the Home Office about how I do my job. Whilst the Sunday Times’ source can say whatever he or she likes, I have thus far received nothing but access all areas and an appreciation of my independence from all whom I meet at the Home Office. Long may that continue.

Funnily enough, I think I can remember (being a slightly better historian at school, as I told you at the beginning) that I managed to get through my school years without ever writing out lines. Never too late to start, I suppose.