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10 Questions for Human Rights Campaigner Shami Chakrabarti | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Human Rights Campaigner Shami Chakrabarti

10 Questions for Human Rights Campaigner Shami Chakrabarti

The leading civil rights advocate talks Brighton, Billy Bragg, the war on drugs and more

The Director of Liberty

Shami Chakrabarti (b. 1969) is the director of the civil liberties organisation Liberty, a position she famously and, some would say, fortuitously took up the day before 9/11. Raised in suburban north-west London, she became a barrister for the Home Office in the mid-Nineties. Regularly voicing her opinions on a multiplicity of current affairs programmes, notably Newsnight, she has spoken out on a huge number of issues, especially taking a stance against Britain’s “anti-terror” legislations.

Such views caused her to be labelled by The Sun newspaper “the most dangerous woman in Britain” (although she’s since been supplanted by Nicola Sturgeon). Along the way she has been a governor of the British Film Institute, garnered a CBE and is currently chancellor of both Oxford Brookes and the University of Essex. Her debut book On Liberty, a look at her own journey with Liberty, was published last year.

Prior to Chakrabarti appearing at a couple of events at the Brighton Festival, we caught up with her for a chat as she took a cab across London.

THOMAS H GREEN: Do you think social media is a brilliant tool or an opiate-like distraction from the issues that face us?

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI: [Laughs] It’s a brilliant tool. I’m sure that once upon a time people said the printing press was dangerous and distracting. Generally my view on technology is it’s either neutral or, on balance, a good thing. The question is what we do with it. The advent of the internet and social media is potentially hugely democratising. The way people can share information and campaigns worldwide with relatively little resources is ultimately a great thing.

Aren’t you bothered by people using screens to mediate themselves away from the real world?

Balance in all things. It’s important to me that people remember it’s nice to look someone in the eye and learn to communicate face-to-face. There’s no substitute for that when it comes to empathising and communicating with people in an intimate way. But, at the same time, it’s a wonderful tool for sharing knowledge,

What do you think of Brighton?

I love Brighton. I think of it as the San Francisco of southern England. What’s not to love about the seaside? Whenever I’ve been the weather’s been rather clement and lovely. Of course there are lots of very progressive people in Brighton. I’ve always had a very warm reception in Brighton when I come to speak, whether it’s at the university or various sixth form colleges or bookstores. A lovely city with lovely people.

What can people expect from the On Liberty event?

They can expect a celebration of human rights as opposed to a grim political meeting. It’s really lovely to be positive for a change. It’s a very challenging moment for human rights in the wider world. But what’s wonderful about events like this, that are located in the cultural rather than political space, is they give us an opportunity to not just to commiserate attacks on rights and freedoms but celebrate everything we hold dear. That’s why it’s wonderful that writers and musicians are involved.

Those involved include Ali Smith, Rachel Holmes, Bidisha, Jackie Kay, Alison MacLeod, Billy Bragg and Neil Bartlett. Have you worked with any of them before?

Quite a few are very much in our Liberty family of writers. Billy Bragg has played at Liberty events before. He did a wonderful performance at our Human Rights Awards last winter in November. He gave a wonderful rendition of the Nina Simone classic “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”. I don’t know if I can persuade him to do that again. It’s really nice to show off these people, to show that we’re not just a bunch of lawyers, that we come from all walks of life, that we reflect the values of free speech, fair trials, personal privacy and so on, not just in law and politics but in music, writing and cultural life.

Have your paths ever crossed with the novelist – and this year’s Brighton Festival Guest Director – Ali Smith?

Absolutely. We’ve got a large number of people we call Writers At Liberty. We do have a subset of our membership who are lawyers but also a very healthy grouping of writers. Ali is a very distinguished Writer At Liberty.

You’re also part of a Festival event called Election 2015 – How Was It For You?

I can’t tell you if that’s going to be celebratory or whether there will be much singing at that. It’s a very different event where people will be putting towels over their heads, trying to make sense of the result. It’s perfectly possible we won’t have a new government because it’s on the 9th May and that’s just two days after the polling. It's perfectly possible – likely, in fact – that coalition negotiations will be going on even as that event takes place. It will be a sightly more traditional and worrying event where people will no doubt express their hopes and concerns about the new government.

What did you make of the TV debates between the leaders?

I’ve dipped in and out of them. The best thing about them, and the biggest difference between this election and the last one, is to see the involvement and participation of the women leaders. That’s made a really refreshing difference and really changed the dynamic. Lots of commentators say that Nicola Sturgeon and her party have done very well being involved in those debates. But Leanne Wood, the Welsh leader, the Plaid leader, was the person who took Nigel Farage on in the context of immigration and xenophobia so I think the women have made a very valuable contribution that should be noted.

Did you hear about Owen Jones popping up to act as a support act for Paloma Faith, giving a speech about how we must maintain hope at a time when we’re being so screwed over by the establishment. What did you think?

Good for him. What a great idea, two great young people – I know them both. How wonderful to see young people putting music and politics together. There’s a noble tradition of that and Paloma Faith is someone who very much believes young people should get out and vote. There’s been a big concern about whether significant numbers of young people are going to register and vote so anything that gets them interested and active has to be a good thing.

Do you think the war on drugs is a war that can be won?

I tend to dislike war language, particularly when it’s applied in all these other spheres, whether it's wars on drugs or wars on terror – etc, etc. I really don’t like that kind of language, it leads to sloppy thinking and abuse of power, in my view. You’ll remember President Nixon’s war on drugs and what that led to in the United States: overcrowded prisons. There are now many geriatrics in American prisons who were sentenced many years ago for possessing minor amounts of drugs because of the nature of that zero tolerance policy. There are more black American men currently in prison than were ever enslaved during the whole period of American slavery. If you’re not careful, when you describe policies as wars it leads to that kind of heavy-handed response, which is often very dangerous. We’ve seen it, of course, in the context of the war on terror, which is another misguided policy that began with this sloppy use of language and the idea you can go to war with an abstract noun.

Some reviews of your book, On Liberty, complained that, although it claimed to be your story alongside that of Liberty, you revealed little of your own life. How would you respond?

It wasn’t supposed to be a kiss ’n’ tell memoir – people will have to go to other books for that kind of titillation. What’s in there is what I felt was relevant, so when I’ve drawn on my own life I’ve drawn on things I believe to be relevant to my belief in human rights and my work at Liberty.

Do you listen to music when you relax?

I do. I can’t think of many greater pleasures in life, actually. It’s a great gift to share with friends. When a dear friend recommends a piece of music or plays it to you it’s as special as a dear friend making you a meal or sharing a glass of wine with you. It can be a great comfort and solace. When you think about some of the most important occasions in someone’s life, they’re often marked with music. Great pieces of music are incredibly moving and sometimes better at expressing and articulating emotions than even words.

What are you currently enjoying?

A friend introduced me to a fantastic American-South African modern jazz musician called Dave Matthews. That’s been one of the greatest revelations of the last 18 months.

You have a teenage son – how does he affect your views on things? What does he bring to your thought processes?

When you start hearing your parents’ voice in your own and your own younger voice in your child’s, you know you’re getting on a bit. It’s really important and helpful to have that critique. I don’t get away with much, that’s for sure. It’s really helpful with trying to stay in touch with the way people think, including the use of technology and so on. It’s a refreshing perspective, I don’t just have that at home, I have it at work as well because Liberty has a very young and vibrant staff. I’m sure I learn more from them than they do from me.

Is it tiresome having to watch what you say all the time for fear of it being picked to pieces?

I don’t worry too much. Doing this job is a great privilege. It’s not something I whine about. It’s one of the greatest privileges of life to get paid – not a huge amount – but to get paid to do work you feel passionate about and to work with great people who share your values, whether that be Liberty members or staff. If I have to take a bit of a bashing and a few knocks in the media sometimes, so be it. It’s a price worth paying.

Don’t you wish people would just ask you for a recipe or something?

Do you know what, I’d be terrified if someone asked me for a recipe. I’m not a very good cook so it’s probably better I stick to human rights.

Overleaf: Watch Shami Chakrabarti give the Haydn Ellis Lecture - on Liberty - at Cardiff University in December 2014

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