Kevin Maguire on human rights

Photo of Kevin MaguireTell us something about yourself.

I'm Associate Editor (politics) on the Daily Mirror, do some writing for the New Statesman and Tribune, and some broadcasting.

When was the first time you became aware of human rights?

Growing up in the mid-1970s I was very struck by the conflicts around the right to work, the rights and responsibilities of strikers. Then it was the end of American military action in Vietnam and hence reduced involvement in Southeast Asia.

I got interested in Amnesty International, particularly Eastern Europe and the paradoxical attitudes to the Polish Solidarity movement. The right-wing press applauded Solidarity's fight for workers' rights, while attacking trade unions and British workers. I understood that our ruling political class thought human rights only applied outside the UK.

More recently, the Daily Mail praised South African dockers for refusing to load arms for Mugabe! Such action would be illegal in Britain, but apparently that's different!

What do human rights mean to you in your own life?

I think it's part of who you are, in the family, in the community, in the wider world.

Journalists traditionally have assumed they have the right to go where they want, speak and write the truth as they see it, without fear. But now there's a culture of official secrecy, both in what government is prepared to reveal, and in what the media may publish.

There's always a tension between the right to privacy and the public interest, but there's a clear difference between the private lives of ordinary people and certain activities of the wealthy and powerful which should be exposed. Increasingly restrictive libel laws and the Human Rights Act protect such people. Recent legislation restricts the rights of the public (and press) to photograph police activity, in order to protect officers' identity. This could result in useful evidence - for example in a case of wrongful arrest - being deleted at the request of police.

What do you think is the public perception of human rights in the UK?

A piece of namby-pamby, middle-class liberalism. If it had been called the People's Rights Act - or even Our Rights Act - it might have had more appeal. People are possessive about ‘our rights'.

It's commonly thought that in other countries such legislation may be necessary because people may not have the safeguards of democracy. The Afghans who hijacked a plane at Stansted Airport were not sent back because they would have faced inevitable torture and imprisonment as dissidents. The Human Rights Act was widely understood to be applicable here. But on the other hand, the innocent men who sued the police for holding their DNA on the database won their case, according to the right-wing press, because it was a victory for commonsense, not because their human rights were being violated.

Interviewed in the Daily Mail, Jack Straw did nothing to dispel the commonly held view that the act is a 'villains' charter' which places criminals' rights above victims'. He is interested in replacing the Human Rights Act with a new Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.

What more can be done to encourage people in the UK to think and feel positively about human rights?

We need a public and political drive to educate the people. How about a leaflet - called something like ‘Your rights, our rights, people's rights, human rights' - explaining the meaning of the Act in terms of rights and responsibilities. It should set out the basic points, with reference to relevant websites. It would be sent with all official documentation via local authorities, licensing authorities, the Inland Revenue, and so on. It should also be a compulsory part of school lessons on civics and citizenship.

This would have the twofold effect of providing necessary information, and provoking public discussion.

Name your human rights hero/heroine.

Shami Chakrabarti - who does an incredible job. She is always reasonable, and shows good grace often when faced with appalling abuse.


What do other people think? Read more interviews.