Shami Chakrabarti interview 31 Oct 2008

Speak softly and carry on sticking at it

Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti, a tireless advocate of human rights and campaigner against what she regards as repressive legislation, gave a fascinating interview with Joan Bakewell at the British Library on Friday 31 October.

It was the opening day of the Library's Taking Liberties exhibition, and Chakrabarti had plenty to say about what she sees as the erosion of the principles espoused by many of the exhibition's key documents such as Magna Carta and the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights. Habeas corpus, for example, has been heavily degraded by recent anti-terror legislation, she said.

She pointed out that since 1997 over 3,000 new offences have been created (“by stealth, accident or sloppiness”), many of them vaguely worded and easily misused: legislation dealing with 'speech crimes', for instance, which seem to go directly against principles such as freedom of speech.

Softly spoken, modest and often slyly humorous (she quotes a Tony Hancock crack at one point: “Magna Carta! Did she die in vain?"), Chakrabarti's strongly-focused passion is nevertheless clear.

Among the many targets of her quietly damning lucidity is what she regards as the recent cheapness of legislation: in contrast to the former steady and considered progress of law-making over many months, laws can now be made by Prime Ministerial fax in the middle of the night to back up a remark made on prime-time television, she said.

A fascinating talk for anyone interested in the principles of the Taking Liberties exhibition.