Shami and Liberty’s Leveson silence

Posted on March 27, 2013

Shami Chakrabarti has never been loathe to appear in the media. At every conceivable opportunity, up she pops to the extent people joke about her omnipresence.

That’s fair enough – after all, it is her job. But such constant coverage on so many topics also makes it easier to spot issues on which she and Liberty have maintained a peculiar silence.

Last year, it was striking that despite the range of threats to freedom and civil liberties that arose in the hosting of the London Olympics, Liberty had almost nothing to say on the subject. At the same time, Big Brother Watch dealt with a large number of different freedom issues directly related to the Games . There was no shortage of things to be concerned about.

Then, during Danny Boyle’s brilliant Opening Ceremony, Shami appeared – not to protest against the DNA database or the proliferation of CCTV, but to carry the Olympic flag as a “champion” of the Olympic movement. Suddenly the uncharacteristic quiet of the previous months made sense.

Now it’s happening again.

With Leveson’s proposals being mashed into law in a late night stitch-up, 318 years of British press freedom is coming to an end. Exemplary damages are hanging over the heads of bloggers and journalists alike, as a punitive means of forcing people into a supposedly voluntary system. Pens are being blunted for fear of state-backed punishments. And where are Liberty?

Well, they were in the media back in November – welcoming the Leveson plan, including the oppressive exemplary damages and explicitly supporting the idea of regulating the blogosphere.

Then Shami released a statement in December clarifying that, despite speculation, she was still supporting Leveson’s proposal for state-backed regulation of the media. While she opposed compulsory membership of a regulator, she restated her enthusiastic backing for exemplary damages to ensure anyone who did not voluntarily join would be at risk of ruin.

Since then, nothing. Literal silence from the group whose website claims they believe that:

Human rights are indivisible. You cannot pick and choose which rights you want to honour. Many rights depend on each other to be meaningful – so, for example, the right to fair trial would be meaningless without the prohibition on discrimination, and the right to free speech must go hand in hand with the right to assemble peacefully.

They’ve talked about secret courts. They’ve tweeted to raise funds. But they don’t appear to have given a damn about the prospect of three centuries of a free press going down the drain.

Why could that be?

To find an answer, we need to look back to 20th July 2011, when Liberty reported that:

Today it was announced that the director of human rights group Liberty will be one of the panel members of the judicial inquiry into phone hacking.

Oh, right.

What happened to human rights being sacred and indivisible? What happened to Liberty’s self-declared status as a fearless group speaking out against any attack on freedom? For that matter, what happened to the meaning of the word Liberty?

It seems Liberty has become a brand, not a concept to fight for. The indivisible has become the malleable – and all those principles have been sold for a scrap of establishment prestige.

If you’re interested in real civil liberties and real freedom, I’d suggest you lend your support to Big Brother Watch and The Freedom Association (on whose Council I am proud to sit). They, at least, won’t sell their souls – or our freedoms – for a moment in the spotlight, or a seat on a prestigious panel.

Has Shami Chakrabarti actually read George Orwell?

Posted on January 29, 2013

“In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing”, wrote George Orwell in his famous 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language‘.

Imagine his disappointment at learning that this statement still holds true 67 years later. He would have been frustrated to find that one of the worst examples of bad political writing was an article in praise of his own essay on the subject.

The offending piece appeared in the Guardian last Thursday, written by Shami Chakrabarti. It was so bad, that it leads me to suspect that she hasn’t actually read ‘Politics and the English Language’ – or that she hasn’t read it all the way through.

Had she done so, at the end of the essay she would have found Orwell’s six rules for writing good English:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

They are an excellent guide, to which I try to stick – though not always successfully, as I’m sure at least one reader will point out in the comments.

Shami, however, utterly disregards them in her Guardian article. Let’s run through them one by one:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

“While [Orwell] illustrated this powerful theory with examples of ugly, unclear and ultimately misleading prose, today the Orwell prize, established in his name, positively celebrates work that speaks truth to power and shines a light on the darkest distortions of fact and argument.”

Oh dear. “Speaks truth to power” is perhaps the most tired phrase still loping around Westminster, like a much-hunted fox that refuses to die. As for “shines a light on the darkest [insert negative concept]“, to describe that as something we are “used to seeing in print” would be the understatement of the year. To combine the two in a sentence which claims the Orwell prize as the heir to his principles is embarrassing.

Nor are those the only breaches of Orwell’s first rule. Others include “spins in his grave”, “as old as the hills” and even an apparently straight-faced deployment of “Orwellian”, only two paragraphs after she described is as an “over-used adjective”.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

I am going to give you one quote: “securocrats”. The verbal equivalent of swallowing a Full English Breakfast made out of Lego.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

“positively celebrates”

Can you celebrate something negatively?

“creeping cancer”

A breach of rule (i), compounded by the author’s inexplicable decision to make cancer more creepy.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Hooray, a rule which survives unscathed!

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

“Is that proportionate justification for building legal and physical architecture requiring cameras and microphones in every living room and bedroom in the land – just in case?”

That sentence would work as well – or even better – without the words “building legal and physical architecture”. After all, what is “legal architecture” other than “laws”, and what is “physical architecture” other than “architecture”?

“Is that proportionate justification for requiring cameras and microphones in every living room and bedroom in the land – just in case?” is still far from the world’s prettiest sentence, but it’s more accessible and direct than the jargon-bloated original.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Whether the article would descend into barbarism without the quotes I’ve selected is for others to judge.

What is certain is that the man the article praises would have been infuriated by the English used to compose it. If Shami intended to write a tribute to him, shouldn’t she have read his work and understood what he believed in?