Freedom of speech

Shami Chakrabarti CBE

Shami Chakrabarti CBE - Credit: Archant

Equality campaigner and writer, Shami Chakrabarti CBE, has recently taken on the role of chancellor at the University of Essex, as the university celebrates its 50th year. Holly Eells speaks to Shami about her reasons for coming to Essex

SHAMI CHAKRABARTI CBE is a champion of equality, director of Liberty (the civil liberties and human rights organisation), a writer and mother. However, recently she took on the role as the chancellor of the University of Essex.The first woman to hold the position at Essex, she joins the university in its golden anniversary year, as it celebrates 50 years of being at the forefront of progressive education and research.

Shami says: ‘It is a privilege, but also about time too, isn’t it? I am particularly honoured as the first woman chancellor, but also restless as it is important if you are to be a radical progressive seat of learning, you do have to take on the greatest injustice on the planet, and in my view, it is gender injustice.

‘The University of Essex has a proud tradition of teaching human rights and respect for the rule of law. I am delighted to be joining this institution that shares

so many of the values we hold at Liberty. At a time when our freedom is under increasing attack, we need our young people to be equipped with the tools to defend them.’

Shami joined Essex University as it launched its 50th anniversary with a celebration weekend in September 2014. Since its foundation in 1964, the university has achieved international recognition, ranking 22nd in the world for universities aged under 50, in the top ten in the UK for research quality and top for social science.

‘The experience so far has been good. I have been made to feel so welcome, it feels like a wonderful fit and there is a really good vibe here. I love the fact they are concentrating on their radical history and Marmite-type brand. If you are the type of person who likes to be spoon-fed, we are not for you. However, if you are the type of person who hangs about after class and still wants to set the world to rights, this university is the one for you.

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It is a great opportunity to broaden my mind, and a few others at the same time,’ adds Shami ‘I like talking to students, as it is a very happy platform for me. I like talking about their work and my work, and linking between the academic and the wider world. I am also looking forward to learning a lot myself, from all the different disciplines from the university. To be a human rights campaigner these days, it is not enough being a lawyer or someone with political experience.

Technology is becoming more and more important for difficult human rights issues, and at Essex you have many disciplines that are relevant not just from a legal or ethical point of view, but from a technical point of view too.’

As chancellor, Shami succeeds Lord Phillips of Sudbury, who stood down in July 2013, and follows in the footsteps of former chancellors Lord Rab Butler of Saffron Walden, Sir Patrick Nairne and Baron Nolan of Brasted. Shami explains: ‘I have known Andrew Philips for well over a decade and he is a wonderful man. I know of his important work in the House of Lords and he has been a real champion of human rights. It is a particular honour to follow in his footsteps. He has personified many things and he really cares about the values of personal privacy, even in the interchanges of the internet. He is someone who really cares about social responsibility, particularly for young people. His congratulations were the first and one of the biggest.’

Shami has many big achievements to be proud of over the last few years. In 2007 she was awarded a CBE. In 2011, she was invited to be one of six independent assessors advising Lord Justice Leveson in his Public Inquiry into the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the UK Press. She was also chosen as one of only eight Olympic Flag carriers at the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.

In 2013 she was assessed as one of the 100 most powerful women in the UK by BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and, earlier this year, she was included in The Sunday Times’ 100 Makers of the 21st Century list. She worked as a lawyer in the Home Office before joining Liberty in 2001, and is a master of the Bench of Middle Temple.

However, despite her successes, Shami is the first to admit she is not everyone’s cup of tea. She explains: ‘I am a Marmite character, some people love their Marmite, but some people hate it. I think it shouldn’t be missing from the grocery shelf and it is healthy for the British diet. Human rights activists are a very important part of the British democracy.’

She adds: ‘I try not to take the vitriolic criticism too seriously. Constructive criticism I always try to take seriously, as well as political. Personal attacks I try not to take to heart, and equally personal plaudits I try to do the same. That seems to be a way to keep your sanity.’

In late 2014, Shami released her debut book, On Liberty, which explores and chronicles her time in charge of the organisation, why fundamental rights and freedoms are indispensable and highlights current threats to our democratic institutions, as well as much more.

She explains: ‘This book is my story of working at Liberty for the last 13 years, the war on terror and all the challenges, opportunities, cases, campaigns and struggles we have had during that time.

It is also an argument for us to hang on to our human rights, which is a difficult moment in our history. It is about remembering that human rights were hard won, particularly after World War II. You can’t replace them with mere citizen’s privileges because they can be taken away from you, these rights are very precious and they are worth fighting for.

‘This is Liberty’s 80th year and I have also been doing this work for more than a decade, so it felt like the right time to write this book. I didn’t just want it to be about me, but my colleagues, friends, parliament, press and victims of human rights. I wanted to write this book and talk about human rights in plain English and do it through a story. As my 12-year-old son says, “Mum, it is a short book with a large font”. It is supposed to be a book for anyone as human rights are for everyone. Politicians underestimate the people, who are sometimes better than their representative.’

Despite her many work commitments, Shami still has down time, especially with her son. She explains: ‘My son and I like to hang out and I really enjoy travelling with the book and with him too. He is a great reader and we take time to just chat. I think I have learnt to be flexible. With all the travelling with the book, I sometimes have to be that little bit careful. Burning the candle at both ends is fine, but not in the middle as well. Life is not in neat boxes, but it is a great deal of fun.’

For more information about Shami’s involvement in Liberty, visit or to find out more about the University of Essex, visit

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