Here's a little post that has been sitting in draft for a little while. I shelved it, took a few deep breaths and instead published The Caucus Race. I thought it's moment had passed, but on the other hand perhaps it has some relevance in light of the ongoing campaigning activity of F4J (summary: Matt O'Connor casts off his M&S kecks to make the girls at Mumsnet cry), if nothing else because it tells you what my heartfelt first response was as compared to my more considered published one. I was pretty angry when I wrote it. References to "this week" are obviously out of date and there is of course some duplication with other subsequent posts. My views on how best to react have developed, as you can see from subsequent posts. It wasn't really a finished post, but I am publishing as is without tinkering because some of it feels as if it may have some currency: the phrase "the tyranny of the victim" has been bandied about a lot lately - re-reading this post and thinking about some of the public behaviour that has been acted out since has made me ponder whether that label might be a rather apt one after all - because actually it is very often fathers rights groups who now enlist the power of the victim and wield it with naked aggression.
So, the post:
I'm often asked by colleagues why I bother blogging. I don't often give them the full explanation because it's complex. But at least one big part of the reason is that I want to inform, to debate and to learn. There is a transparency gap in family justice and it breeds misinformation. I want to help people better understand it, to remove some of the fear, to help the different groups and individuals who work in it and have their lives decided in it communicate better. Not that I'm enough of an egomaniac to think I can make much difference, but I just feel someone should be doing it. And I can. So I must.
This warped sense of duty is one which I purge at the expense of my bank balance, my sleep, my children and my marriage. It is not aiding my fat cat career. But I can. So I must.
And so it's me who has her head above the parapet. Bloody idiot. But this bloody idiot is not going away just because of a bit of flack or threats that I will get my "fingers burnt".
I've always maintained a pretty open policy on comments. Since the early days of this blog I've encouraged debate and comment, opening up an invitation in 2007 to F4J to debate and discuss. I've had guest posts from F4J activists and others. I have never moderated out comments simply because I don't agree with them but I have always publicly stated that I have certain basic expectations in terms of abusive or legally problematic posts and I've stuck to them. I try to respond whenever a response is called for. And I try to get through comments awaiting moderation as quickly as possible.
It is sad that it should need to be said, but I'm not incapable of introspection, empathy or kindness. I do understand why people are angry and rude when they are talking about lost children, injustice, heartbreak. I have children of my own (although I have not lost them), and I spend my workings days with people who are in exactly that boat. Maintaining a professional distance does not mean that I don't have feelings about the fractured lives that I deal with. I couldn't do the job without empathy and a little bit of kindness.
And the job is a constant process of self reflection - it's how we improve. I did that wrong, what should I do next time? Nobody gives us a performance appraisal as sole practitioners - we have to work it out, constantly self-scrutinising. In spite of the bluff, I have often said (only half joking) that barristers are, as a species, pretty insecure.
So in response to a rough week in comments (and the odd threatening tweet) I have made a point of reflecting on the sequence of events and what has been said. Because when you are being called a cunt, a bottom dweller, a lizard, cold hearted, out for financial gain, a despicable bigot, ignorant, prejudiced, a family butcher and an abuser by the leader of a prominent national campaigning organisation you have to question why that is happening.
I've spent quite a lot of time this week responding to comments on the post in question, not because I'm determined to get the last word, but because I'm actually quite committed to trying to promote sensible discussion. And because I think that it is polite when someone asks a question to answer it. I've gone back over what I have said and what other people have said and I'm satisfied that I've said some things that people disagree with, and that they are entitled to disagree with, but also that I have not overstepped the line in terms of what is and is not appropriate. As for where that line should be drawn I've been criticised this week for being too flippant about serious matters and for not having a sense of humour, for being some kind of conjurer, confusing the ill-educated with my clever word magic, and of being patronising. And for just being a lawyer, particularly one who adheres to her code of conduct and basic tenets. I've been accused both of being a solicitor and of being just a jumped up ex-solicitor. I've been accused of lacking empathy for those who may struggle to be dispassionate in their remarks. And of stifling free speech. And of calling other people abusive. On the plus side though, a lot of people have been worried about the possibility that I might have bad dreams, and have sent fond wishes for a good night's rest. But I have to say that after a hard day's lizard conjuring, asset stripping and criminal conduct I sleep like a baby. So, whilst touching, they need not have been so concerned. (Gosh, dare I make a joke?)
And although my original post was about the wisdom of a particular campaign in connection with childrens' justice, I've also been criticised for missing the point (the point being that it's all about the children for those who have lost track) by a spot of "colourful language", "a few cross words". Well, one man's bit of colourful language is another's verbal abuse and I tend to the latter. But it is emphatically not about my feelings, hurt pride etc. The real point for me is not just the overarching question of the needs of children, but more particularly about the level of public debate about family justice. That has long been something which I have thought is in a pretty parlous state and right now I'm pretty bloody despondent about the whole thing. Not just because of the descent from sensible discussion to mud slinging that has taken place this week on Pink Tape and elsewhere. I think it's sad that this should happen publicly because it discredits the fathers rights movement. I think it's sad that this should happen on this blog, through which I had foolishly dreamt that I might gradually encourage other professionals to voice opinions, engage in discussion - and to listen. This is not a good advert. It's a total turnoff. When they next ask me "Why do you do it?" I don't know what I'll say.
In essence the thrust of a lot of the comments seemed to be that those being a bit sweary or rude were entitled to be cut some slack because of their experiences as parents struggling to have a relationship with their children. I've thought about that a lot. And this is where I'm at. I understand where they are coming from. I know that separation from a child is awful, that conflict over children can become all consuming, overpowering. I know that occasionally the odd inappropriate rant will slip out and before you know it you've hit "submit". And I think that the inordinately long comment thread is testament to the generosity of slack that I have cut.
"Call them aggressive when they start attacking or hanging lawyers and judges from lamp posts. The evils of denying meaningful relationships to offspring compared to a few cross words? It’s high time the voices of family law professionals gave way to their victims. If you cared to listen, you’d find them to be quite a civil bunch, all things considered."
You know, I have listened. And I have found some people civil. And others - not so much. Nick Langford, from F4J, who I have often discussed things with on this blog, commented that:
"Despite what some may think, we have often, here and elsewhere, presented cogent, well-reasoned and well-researched arguments, and it is enormously frustrating when these are merely brushed aside as the ranting of “mad, bad, sad dads” and no attempt is made to engage in debate or present an opposing view."
I think I've had a taste of what father's rights campaigners often encounter - nobody really listening to what is being said because they can't see past the "fathers rights nutjob" label, the only difference is that in my case the label is "lawyer". Nick identifies a real problem. Many in my profession, in the family justice sector write off all fathers rights campaigners because of the juvenile antics of a few. I've never subscribed to that view. I've welcomed attempts by organisations to develop and become more sophisticated in what they do. And I think I've listened. I agree with their view that the system fails, although I don't always agree why or how it could best be fixed.
The fact that this image problem persists makes it particularly sad that even potential allies can attract the vitriolic response that I have this week for simply daring to question, and more so that so many commenters have trivialised the significance of the language chosen. I'm not writing here about me or my feelings, but about the damage that is done to their cause. Every time there is a rant like this, it means someone else will have switched off when something really sensible is said by F4J, someone else will just hear a rant because that is what they expect. Maybe F4J will have gained a few more disillusioned dads as followers, but as a tactic for a campaigning organisation that wants to influence the influencers I think it's far less likely to have been helpful or effective. Not all publicity is good publicity.
I've taken my criticism this week and I've engaged with it. Will F4J do the same? All I've seen from Matt O'Connor is a tweet crowing about how he's upset a barrister this week so he "must be doing something right". That's a great achievement, but I rather think he's missing the point.