Why he must go

October 11, 2002

   When should a professor resign? When should a university choose to dismiss an academic? What constitutes bringing a university into disrepute? The very fact that such questions are posed may seem to strike at the foundations of the academic freedom that university teachers guard so zealously.

But academic freedom is not an unconditional birthright of those who hold university posts. It is part of an implicit contract. The right to claim such freedom depends on university teachers scrupulously discharging their duties to the community of scholars as a whole. It has traditionally been agreed that the most important duty of all scholars is to maintain rigorous intellectual honesty - in short, they are obliged to tell the truth.

When, on July 30, in the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Mr Justice Eady handed down his judgment in the Shieldfield libel trial, he raised questions about such scholarly obligations. It is almost certain that never before in British legal history has a finding of malice (a term that should be understood in its legal sense) been made about a university academic who is responsible for teaching undergraduate students.

The real issue is not that Mr Justice Eady described Richard Barker's evidence as "rambling and defensive", nor that he observed that he "seemed incapable of giving a straight answer to a straight question". It is not that the judge characterised the review team's approach to evidence as "unscientific and irrational" and spoke of Barker's "willingness to use his position to bully" potential witnesses.

The real issue is that in the course of his 400-page judgment Mr Justice Eady found that the review team that Barker headed had deliberately misled the public it had been appointed to inform. As the judge put it, "they had consciously set out to misrepresent the state of the evidence available to support their joint belief that Mr [Christopher] Lillie and Ms [Dawn] Reed and other local residents were child abusers (and indeed abusers on a massive scale). The team made a number of claims in the report that they must have known to be false."

The review team had, for example, entered into a secret understanding with the police: if the police would grant it access to key evidence in the case - video interviews with the children - it would refrain from criticising the interviewing techniques. Not only did the members of the team fail to disclose the existence of this deal in their report, they went further: they claimed that the interviews "would not support the view that the questions were in any way leading". But as members of the team accepted during the libel trial, the video interviews contained numerous leading questions. As emerged from a document disclosed late in the trial, Barker had even noted at the time that one of the interviews contained "some leading questionsI very focused on getting answers". As the judge said:

"What is clear is that (the team members all) chose to make a blatantly false claim, which is quite indefensible".

This is but one of a series of examples where the review team misrepresented the evidence that had been presented to it and made false claims in its report in order to render the case against Reed and Lillie more powerful. That the review team's belief in Reed and Lillie's guilt was honestly held does nothing to mitigate its specific acts of dishonesty. The consequences of the false claims it made were of the gravest kind, for Barker and his team used them to lend credibility and authority to a report through which two fellow citizens (who were in fact innocent) were driven to the brink of suicide and placed in grave danger from vigilantes.

To any ordinary reader of Mr Justice Eady's judgment it must seem quite clear that Barker should not be entrusted with teaching social work to undergraduate students, let alone with heading an entire social work department. Yet, as a new academic year begins at the University of Northumbria, it is Barker who continues to preside over the teaching of social work and over courses concerned with child protection.

Any reasonable commentator should recognise that the vice-chancellor of the University of Northumbria, Kel Fidler, and his senior colleagues have been placed in a difficult position. Unlike other professionals, academics are in the unenviable position of having to pass judgement on their own colleagues over questions of professional misconduct.

That task is an unpleasant one but it is one that Northumbria should face up to. But instead it has attempted to justify its continued support for a senior academic by claiming that there is no connection between his role as leader of the review team and his duties as an academic. As a spokesman for the university put it to me: "The finding of the judge was in relation to a particular situation which had no bearing on Professor Barker's activities at the university."

This cannot be regarded as a serious argument. Its absurdity can perhaps best be conveyed by a parallel: if a bank were to discover that one of its branch managers had been convicted of embezzling money from a charity of which he was a trustee, it would not disregard his actions on the grounds that they did not relate to its own assets.

The proposition that Mr Justice Eady's findings can have no bearing on Barker's activities at the university must be in any case unsustainable. Barker's main qualification to lead the review team was his reputation as a scholar, his academic post and his special interest in child protection. In the light of the evidence that emerged at the trial, the Shieldfield case must now be recognised as one of the most disastrous and incompetent child-abuse investigations conducted in the UK. Responsible social work departments in universities have a duty both to learn the lessons of Shieldfield and to impart those lessons to their students.

Barker is surely not in a position to do this. Just as importantly, his position as head of department would in practice make it difficult for these grave issues to be addressed adequately by any of his junior colleagues. His role might place the truth in quarantine and paralyse the critical independence of an entire university department.

There are other questions that arise. How could Barker conceivably deal with the case of a student who was shown to be guilty of plagiarism or of cheating in exams? For these, though serious enough, are much lesser sins than the kind of dishonesty of which he has been found guilty. If Northumbria condones his conduct and continues to employ him as a teacher, surely it will place itself in a position where it cannot reasonably or without hypocrisy enforce any demands for scholarly integrity or intellectual honesty either in relation to its students or in relation to other members of staff.

In the extraordinary circumstances that have come about as a result of the Shieldfield judgment, university teachers at Northumbria and elsewhere should recognise that their own interests demand that the traditional standards of their profession be upheld. If he has any sense of honour, Barker will tender his resignation. Failing this, Northumbria should dismiss him. If it does not do so, it not only runs the risk of destroying its reputation as a scholarly institution and betraying its own undergraduates, it threatens to undermine the principles on which the whole scholarly community rests.

Richard Webster is the author of The Great Children's Home Panic , published by Orwell Press.


See also: Was it mistake or was it malice?

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