Sun, 23 Jun 2002

Helena Kennedy sticks to her principles

Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Browsing the curriculum vitae of Baroness Helena Kennedy, you cannot help but be impressed, if not a overwhelmed. She holds so many titles, positions and achievements in a wide range of areas that it is a bit daunting to address her.

To start with, she is the chair of the British Council, the UK's international organization for educational and cultural relations, a position that she said was suitable for her because it brings together so many areas that she is interested in.

And what exactly are they? Well, practically everything.

If it all has to be simplified, Kennedy works predominantly in the field of law, given her background as a lawyer.

"Back in school, I always liked to debate and I've always been interested in the law. I realized that it's a great agent for change. I especially like criminal law, because it's so much about the human condition ... I like that," said Kennedy at a luncheon with journalists here.

She has acted in many of the prominent cases of the last decade, including the Brighton bombing trial and Guildford Four appeal.

She also undertakes judicial reviews, public inquiries and the issue of sex discrimination at work. Her award-winning book Eve was Framed, on women and the criminal justice system, was published in 1992.

Kennedy has produced and hosted a series of television programs on the law, mostly with the BBC, including Blind Justice, Heart of the Matter' and Raw Deal, on medical negligence, and Hypothetical.

The television work stopped though, because she said it was no longer appropriate for her in her capacity as a member of the House of the Lords.

But, she still has something to say about television, especially court TV.

"I'm against televised court. I think it never gives a very real understanding of what is taking place. Because what you see is the selective parts chosen by journalists. Television cameras can also intimidate witnesses and make them not tell the full truth. The other thing is, lawyers, judges can all play up to the cameras," said Kennedy, who is also an advisor to the queen.

"However, I think the court should be public and journalists should report it. But having televised court, it probably interferes with justice. The public will think they know what the case is about when they have only see bits of the case."

Given her long and impressive achievements in law, she was once awarded The Times Lifetime Achievement in Law, she has been approached by many lawyers on her visit here, asking about law reform.

"The legal system here seems to have lost the confidence of the general public. It is important to constantly review what is happening in court. And it's essential to have an independent judiciary and lawyers who are courageous and pursuing justice," she said.

Human rights courts, she added, were a very important development in having reconciliation and trust.

"It is also important to address grievances from the past, because if not, it will halt what you attempt to do in the future.

"In Britain, we recently had a public inquiry into a Northern Ireland shooting 30 years ago, or the Bloody Sunday event. Because there won't be any peace if we don't do this. It doesn't mean that you put anyone in prison, but it means that you have a recognition that wrong was done," said Kennedy, who also chairs the Human Genetics Commission.

Born 52 years ago in Scotland, she appears to be like a regular housewife. She is assertive and straightforward, but still friendly and warm.

"I think everyone agrees that I'm an extremely independent minded woman," she laughed.

"I'm a good friend of the prime minister, his wife is my colleague. But I'm a critical friend. If the government is wrong, I tell them. But I guess they (Tony and Cherie Blair) are OK with that."

A member of the Labour Party ("I chose it because I've always been a campaigner for the underdog"), Kennedy was made baroness by the party in order to penetrate the House of Lords.

"So, I'm a Labour baroness, or red baroness ... or pink baroness!" she laughed.

Kennedy is also a woman activist, as she has done various work on women and justice, and chaired many women's councils and organizations.

"Discrimination still exists, no matter how developed the country is. But we also have to remember, that our struggle has not been long, compared to what has happened for hundreds and hundreds of years," said Kennedy, who is married to a surgeon and has a daughter and two sons.

It is education, she added, that makes a difference. It is also important to have a bigger number of women in the government.

"I'm in favor of affirmative action. I think you would wait forever to see women become equal with men if you wait for the natural processes. In Britain, we have recently passed legislation which allows a degree of affirmative action in getting women into political parties, to make sure that the party brings them on."

Many women, she said, are against the action, saying that political ascension must be based on merit.

"Because many women are tutored in male ways of seeing the world. It is true, we don't want stupid women in government and we have no shortage of clever women. But merit is only a valuable measure if women are involved as men have decided so far."

Despite relatively long experiences in many fields, Kennedy is apparently still a girl compared to other members of the House of Lords.

"Yes, they actually call me a girl! They are so ancient," she laughed.

When asked how she found so much energy to do so many activities, she just shrugged like those things do not absorb her energy at all.

"Just do what you enjoy doing, and you'll find the energy."

Will she ever stop and retire? Not likely.

"More, we need to be more. We need to do more, more, more... That's what I always say to the government."