Friday, 20 June 2008

Anatomy of a smear

It's not an important story, but the saga of Shami Chakrabarti, David Davis and Andy Burnham has sparked lively online debate. Was the culture minister's comment about "late-night, hand-wringing, heart-melting phone calls" an innuendo-laden smear and an example of casual sexism, as Anne Perkins suggested? Was it something more sinister - evidence of the security services tapping Chakrabarti's phone, or Davis's, and passing on the details? Was Chakrabarti's threatened legal action an absurd over-reaction, a cunning tactic which turns the tables on New Labour's smear-merchants and keeps the story in the news, or just the reaction of a woman who has been genuinely hurt and upset?

There are several strands here. On the origin of the story, I think the conspiracy theories can be put to rest. The closeness between David Davis and Shami Chakrabarti has been common knowledge for months. Last October, the Telegraph featured Liberty boss in a list of politically influencial persons, commenting that "She, more than anyone, has influenced Conservative civil liberties policies... She is a huge influence on Davis in particular." In December last year Chakrabarti took part in a Q & A on the Telegraph website: she was introduced with the remarks that she "has true cross-party appeal" and "sees David Davis often."

The stories linking Davis's resignation from the Commons to Chakrabarti's influence came originally from anti-Davis elements in the Tory leadership, angry and confused about his unexpected and somewhat bizarre action. Ann Treneman, in the Times on Wednesday, commented acidly (apropos Gordon Brown's speech on security to the IPPR),


I am surprised that she was allowed in. There is a rumour that DD resigned after being “bewitched” by Shami. She denies this, but then she would.


Which goes a whole lot further than Burnham's remarks in the New Labour organ Progress:

To people who get seduced by Tory talk of how liberal they are, I find something very curious in the man who was, and still is I believe, an exponent of capital punishment having late-night, hand-wringing, heart-melting phone calls with Shami Chakrabarti.


Gramatically the sentence doesn't quite work, but would appear to single out Ms Chakrabarti as an example of someone who has been "seduced by Tory talk". While Conservatives who disapprove of David Davis's enthusiasm for civil liberties blame Chakrabarti, then, for exercising some witch-like influence over him, Burnham and others in the New Labour establishment imagine that she has had her head turned by the Tory ex-SAS action man. Both assumptions, of course, are in their way extremely sexist. The notion that the agreement between David Davis and Shami Chakrabarti might be based on a common analysis of law and politics doesn't seem to register.

Susan Kramer, the LibDem MP, was among several female politicians playing the sex card:

This kind of tawdry salacious gossip about any young woman who becomes prominent in the political world is really shocking. It is going to drive young women out of politics if it continues.


What is slightly surprising, however, is how Burnham's ambiguous reference to "late-night phone calls" becomes "tawdry salacious gossip". There are two possible explanations. One is that Kramer, and others whose misogyny radars started bleeping as soon as this story arose, were (subconsciously at least) guilty of precisely the sexualised thought-process of which they accused Andy Burnham. The mental leap between the idea of Davis and Chakrabarti discussing civil liberties on the telephone and the two of them engaging in torrid sex would appear to be a large one indeed. Yet Chakrabarti herself would seem to have made it. Unless she is simply trying to discredit Burnham or keep the Davis story in the news, she would on the face of it seem to be more than a little over-sensitive.

But then is it not somewhat sexist even to perceive sexual innuendo? Imagine that there was an element of flirtation in the Davis/Chakrabarti relationship. Would this be in itself disreputable, improper, or serve to undermine the strength of her arguments? Men after all tend to be susceptible to sexual manipulation, as successful women are well aware. This has little to do with sex, per se: all daughters either instinctively know how to twist their fathers round their little fingers, or quickly learn. Mrs Thatcher flirted with both Reagan and Gorbachev, even Mitterand, and no-one ever thought that Denis was a cuckold. Shami Chakrabarti has had a much higher public profile than her predecessor as director of Liberty, John Wadham, and it is not implausible to suggest that her gamine charm has contributed to that success. And if she has flirted with the camera or with politicians to advance the cause of civil liberties then she has nothing to be ashamed of. It's not like she was after a pay rise.

So why the outrage? Presumably because of the puritanism and hypocrisy of the modern age, which makes it almost impossible to express such a thought. So that it becomes a slur on a woman's integrity to suggest that she might have used "feminine wiles" - even in a noble cause - rather than the mere marshalling of arguments. And indeed it is an insult, precisely because it is assumed to be; but it is surely Davis, not Chakrabarti, who ought to feel insulted. Except that Burnham's suggestion was quite the opposite. If there was sexism in his words, it wasn't any implication that as a woman Chakrabarti was using sexuality on Davis. On the contrary, he seems to have been saying that Shami is a silly, flightly girl who has been taken in by a smooth-talking older man. Perhaps that's what made her so upset.

The other explanation for Chakrabarti's wrath is altogether darker. Could it be that Westminster gossips have indeed been insinuating a full-blown affair between the two? We go back to the origins of the story, and the nudge-nudge comments of Ann Treneman with which I began. Another hint comes from Benedict Brogan: "Mr Burnham is said to be aghast at the way his words are being interpreted, but no one seems to believe it was accidental". Why would Burnham's words be given the interpretation that they were if they didn't allude to something that was already the talk of the town? And why did a throwaway comment in a little-read political journal come to attract such a storm of controversy in the first place. Few political journalists are avid consumers of Progress. Someone chose to draw their attention to it. Someone decided that this would be a story.

For what it's worth, I think the conjunction of Davis and Chakrabarti is a genuine meeting of minds. As Burnham's comments hint, many in the left instinctively feel that there's something unnatural about civil libertarians making common cause with Tories: they must have been "seduced". Civil liberties, they imagine, are "their" issue, as nationalisation used to be. This, of course is nonsense; it always was nonsense, but the galloping authoritarianism of New Labour has made it more nonsensical than ever.

One exchange from the Q&A in December's Telegraph demonstrates this clearly. In response to "Bob from England", who questioned the compatibility of Islam and gay rights (something which does indeed pose a ticklish problem for many on the Left, though they choose to ignore it) Chakrabarti had the following to say:

I don’t believe in “group rights”, I believe in individual human rights that belong to each and every one of us. You find them documented in a long thread of documents that begin with Magna Carta and find an international consensus after the holocaust and the Blitz in the UN declaration and Churchill’s Human Rights Convention (now contained in our Human Rights Act). I do agree passionately with the importance of free speech. Too many people (not just on the Left) think that their speech is free and others’ more expensive.


Most Conservatives would heartily agree - accept for the part about the Human Rights Act, of course, which has had the possibly unintended consequence of encouraging certain manifestations of group rights. Perhaps the party should offer her a seat.

1 comment:

Edwin said...

Have always admired (OK, also fancied) her, and only recently admired (and liked) him. I don't give a flying fuck if they're having it off, I wish them both well.