On anonymity, independence and why keeping the mask on is so important to the Secret Barrister.
“There are plenty of other practising lawyers who put their names to their opinions. Why should you be different?”
This, entirely fair, question has been put to me in several interviews I have given in the run-up to the release of my book. It often tops or tails chains of correspondence between my publicist and intrigued media outlets, and has in some cases proved a stumbling block for those displeased with my response and insistent on my revealing my wholly uninteresting real self as a precursor to the grant of publicity.
But despite its ubiquity, I have still not yet properly got a handle on answering the question. At least not as succinctly and pithily as I would like. This is almost certainly a fault of my own solipsism; of my failure to appreciate that just because I instinctively know why anonymity (or pseudonymity, as I suppose it is) is so important to me, it is not necessarily self-evident to others. No doubt I haven’t properly considered how best to explain to an understandably curious audience why, unlike other barristers brave enough to speak out under their real identity, I insist on keeping the mask on. Why, as it is properly wondered, I should be different.
So today, the date of publication of my first pseudonymous book, seems as good a time as any to try to explain.
Put simply, anonymity buys me the ability to speak plainly, frankly and without fear or favour about the problems that I see in the criminal justice system, in a way that I don’t think I could under my real name. It respects and protects the identity and privacy of the individuals concerned where I draw on real-life examples of cases from professional experience, none of whom have asked for the attention that I might otherwise unwittingly direct their way. And it protects, albeit not inures, against any perception that I am tempering or modifying my opinions out of a desire to preserve my professional reputation or my income stream. I have no need to pull punches or defer to authority when mounting my high horse to decry the ruin of criminal justice, nor do my colleagues or chambers have to fear or suffer the consequences of my chippy activism. By the same token, when I speak out in partial defence of the system – for example, to stand up for a judge being unfairly demonised in the tabloids – it is clear (I hope) that I do so without a dog in the fight. There is no benefit to me in adopting any particular stance on any given issue. I will not be a Secret QC on the back of my writing, and I have even fewer pretensions at becoming The Secret Judge. When I cheer the valiant, Sisyphean efforts of overworked CPS caseworkers or underpaid defence solicitors, I do so not in the hope of sourcing sympathetic new instructions, but because they damn well deserve the praise.
My hope is that anonymity preserves, even bolsters, my independence in a way that I think is difficult to achieve writing under one’s real byline. Even if you are as scrupulously fair and even-handed as most named legal commentators undoubtedly are, treading onto any politically sensitive topic forces them to contend in the first instance with a barrage of irrelevant and groundless accusations of self-interest, bias or unchecked privilege. By taking my identity off the table, I hope to keep the focus on the issues, rather than the speaker. I am exactly what I say on the tin – a jobbing junior barrister; nobody that anyone will have heard of, certainly not (as I’ve heard suggested) Keir Starmer (!), nor indeed anyone with any sort of public profile. And that – my mundane existence as a practising criminal barrister – is the only fact which I think a reader requires to engage with what I write. Most people who interact seem to accept that premise; that the only information of relevance is that I am a junior barrister who specialises in criminal law, and therefore have a vague grasp on the subject matter I’m dealing with. Being able to identify and attach a non-descript name and face to my posturing will not assist anybody’s understanding of the arguments I offer or the opinions I spout. If the former are misguided or the latter half-baked, they will fall on their demerits, rather than crumble under the weight of bogus assumptions.
More than this, anonymity allows me to discuss cases handled and things seen and heard with a frankness which I fervently hope is helpful to a non-legal audience. When asked how it feels to defend an alleged paedophile in whose guilt you secretly believe, I don’t have to rely on the abstract; I can speak openly from personal experience to demystify and discuss the issues raised by that question, without any fear of the involved parties being identified. I can walk a lay reader through the criminal process, describing the flaws and pitfalls by reference to things I have seen, without feeling obliged to sugar coat or descend into generalities. The driving purpose behind this blog and the book is to try to open up the dusty legal system to the public who owns it. Anonymity, when I was starting out three years ago, struck me as the simplest and easiest way to achieve this.
And finally, the last reason I offer up is perhaps, to me, the most immediately important. My desire, from the day I wrote my first blogpost, has been and remains simple: to be able to continue to practise in a job which, for all its frustrations, I love, while drawing attention to the problems in the system. This arrangement allows me to do just that. While I would hope that, in the event of my unmasking, there would be sufficient recognition of my good intentions to allow me to continue to practise, it would be naive to suppose that I could carry on writing as well. At least one would have to fall. I would, in reality, either slink back with sun-burned wings into a muted practice; or walk away from the Bar and contemplate another life altogether. That is a choice which I know that ultimately I may be forced to make. But it’s not one I want to. Not while I still hope I have a contribution to offer to both.🔷
|The Secret Barrister is the author of the book "The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It's Broken", available on Amazon in print, eBook and audiobook.|
(This piece was first published on The Secret Barrister’s blog.)