View from the top: Shami Chakrabarti, director, Liberty

Shami Chakrabarti is one of the UK's most well-known lobbyists. But as she tells Clare O'Connor, she is no fan of the limelight.

Shami Chakrabarti
Shami Chakrabarti

The past few weeks must have been exhausting for Shami Chakrabarti. First, Gordon Brown narrowly won the controversial ‘42 days' vote in the Commons, extending the time police can hold terror suspects. As director of civil rights organisation Liberty, Chakrabarti had been campaigning tirelessly against the 42-day limit for months on end.

However, it was only after Liberty lost its battle in the Commons that Chakrab­arti found herself thrust into the public eye for the wrong reasons. Although a fixture on the evening news and regular Question Time guest, Chakrabarti could not have anticipated the media furore that erupted when the culture secretary made what she calls ‘tawdry' allegations about her relationship with former shadow home secretary David Davis.

Her reaction to Andy Burnham's claim that she had shared ‘late-night, hand-wringing, heart-melting phone calls' with Davis will not surprise anyone who has met the 39-year-old lawyer - she threatened to sue.

It must be this single-mindedness, in part, that prompted The Times columnist David Aaronovitch to call Chakrabarti ‘probably the most effective public affairs lobbyist of the past 20 years'. Chakrabarti, speaking to PRWeek before the 42 days vote, does not necessarily consider that des­cription an honour.

‘Some lobbyists, with the greatest of res­pect, are so obviously just lobbying. They are selling a product or a message,' she says. ‘But my Liberty colleagues who speak to MPs are not just lobbyists, they are experts. There is a symbiotic relationship between the parliamentarian and the campaigner.'

Shami ChakrabartiChakrabarti is also rather self-effacing when discussing her role at Liberty - a tiny organisation of about 25 based in a former shop off London's Borough High Street. She denies that the NGO's ability to punch well above its weight is anything to do with her leadership.

‘The nature of the beast means it is a team effort,' she says. ‘It just gets attribu­ted to me. I know that sounds self-deprecating, but we have next to no budget for advertising. I am the human logo or hum­an brand. The organisation becomes closely identified with me as the director, and the principal spokesperson.'

Those who have met her struggle to separate her public image from the ‘real' Chakrabarti. One public affairs insider describes her as brilliant, but aloof. Anot­her describes her as fearsome - echoing Sun columnist Jon Gaunt's hyperbolic claim that she is ‘the most dangerous woman in Britain'. Others understand that her steely exterior is a necessity for her role as Liberty's ‘human brand'.

She is not exaggerating when she talks of working with scant resources. Indeed, Liberty's budget is minuscule - around £1.3m for 2008. The organisation relies
ent­irely on the regular donors who believe in the cause.

As a res­ult, unlike larger cha­rities or pressure groups, Liberty functions entirely without external PR or marcoms support. Even its recent - and first ever - cinema ad campaign was shot by a young, aspiring filmmaker who simply wanted to help Liberty get the word out about imprisonment without charge.

‘We don't pay PR people,' says Chakrabarti. ‘I am sure it is a noble profession but we are professional campaigners. Our slogan for the cinema ad campaign came from us. We would not aspire to pay people to do this for us.

Of course, there are people who are very skilful at coming up with messages and selling complex ideas for companies and the rest of it, but our brand and tone and message is so precious to us that we have to own it. It seems to work for us to have that level of control.'

As a ‘recovering lawyer', as she laughingly describes her role, Chakrabarti has had to train herself and her team at Lib-erty to drop the legal jargon in order to be accessible. While some MPs, she admits, enjoy poring over reams of documents on the minutiae of anti-terror law, most people prefer their policy broken down into dig­estible sound bites.

‘For us it has been a journey from being a bunch of nice, worthy lawyers to att­empting to speak plain English,' she says.

‘Before you go on the radio put the law book down. The challenge is trying to boil down 20 pages in a parliament­ary briefing into a few senten­ces. Try to find images, metaphors, ideas and history references that resonate with people. A lawyer at Liberty has to be a brilliant lawyer but also a campaigning lawyer.

‘Don't jump to conclusions - don't ass­ume that your message will not resonate with people on the right of centre as well as the left,' says Chakrabarti of her group's ability to transcend the traditional partisanship of the daily papers.

‘These are universal democratic values. The right to know the charges against you when you are being locked up has a history that goes back to the Magna Carta. You should have no problem selling that message to a Conservative politician, or to the Daily Mail, or indeed to a Labour backbencher and The Guardian.

I don't believe in monoliths. If you believe you will not get your message across to The Express, you start out being chippy. So, surprise surprise, you probably won't.'

Chakrabarti may not be chippy in courting The Express' support, but she certainly bristles at the suggestion that Liberty goes out of its way to gain media coverage. It certainly seems to hit the headlines more than most small NGOs, and its director enj­oys a media profile on a par with many top politicians.

‘It is not just about coverage, it is about winning,' she explains. ‘For a long time in our history we were just like any old NGO: delighted to get a bit of coverage. We are a bit cockier than that now. We want to win. We do not want to be name checked or to be a recognisable brand. Of course, that is valuable, but we want to win.

There is a bit of a hair-shirted tradition in the campaigning world - NGOs and charities - that it is all about "the struggle". That is not enough for us. We want to change things, and to speak to audiences who are not our mates and who do not drink Free Trade organic coffee and read The Guardian with us in our kitchens. It is about changing people's minds and winning.'

For someone so adept at changing people's minds, Chakrabarti seems to have rather a dim view of the PR industry, des­pite protestations to the contrary. ‘I have met some professional PR people who are clearly very good at what they do and some that are selling snake oil to their clients,' she says. ‘It is really quite obscene.'

When talk turns to former Observer staffer Nick Davies' much-discussed rec­ent book Flat Earth News, Chakrabarti is more measured. Unlike many commentators, she does not buy the notion that journalists are so easily influenced by the supposedly insidious infiltration of PR into ‘churnalism'.

‘It can be quite fashionable to be a bit anti-media, and say, "oh it has all gone to the dogs", but ultimately just look at the world and the media worldwide,' she says. ‘Britain's not doing too badly. People like us can get access, and not paid-for access.' Besides, she argues, journalists are bombarded with press releases, but they are still evaluating.

‘No doubt [Davies] may have legitimate concerns, but it is still possible for a small group of people like us to break through. There's a lot of injustice in the world, and we are 25 people who work together for a good cause.'

Chakrabarti on the rise of the citizen journalist
‘My media consumption is print and broadcast, but most of my colleagues are heavy web users and probably do not even buy newspapers anymore. Older people in journalism find that quite scary but I think they are wrong to be scared. It is like being scared of the printing press. There will always be a role for the translators of news.

Everything is news - people can take a picture of an accident with their mobile phone and upload it, as they did during the 7 July bombings. You can say everyone is an amateur journalist, and that it will die out, but I do not agree. I think that when there is so much information people want to go to their trusted friend to help them separate truth from speculation. Just because there are lots of bloggers does not mean there will not be a role for Simon Jenkins or Polly Toynbee.

It is the trusted friend to guide you through the mass of information, news and opinion. In our own way Liberty has to be a bit like that. We are not journalists, but people who care about rights often say that, when there have been incidents like the Olympic ceremony demonstrations, they wanted to know what Liberty thought about the way the police handled it. I think that is great. But that is a relationship of trust not to be abused.'

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in