Publish and be damned was always a myth

The New Statesman has never been afraid to ruffle feathers. Thus it is fair to ask why we, like others in the media, have refrained from publishing the Danish cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad. The reason is simple: we are prepared to take great risks and to cause offence, but only in the name of good journalism. By good journalism we mean breaking stories of malfeasance and other deeds, or producing original and sometimes unpalatable comment. It doesn't mean poking fun just to prove a spurious point about press freedom.

That said, nor are we jumping on to a bandwagon of condemnation of those who have chosen a different course. This was a judgement call by editors; there are no absolutes here. In the highly charged atmosphere post-9/11 and 7/7, and with the follies of the Iraq war at the heart of politics, some have distilled the argument down to whether Islam requires a particular defence against imagery that its adherents regard as insulting. Such a tightly focused debate may miss a bigger point. Across Europe, as secular values assert themselves over organised religion, so the various faiths - including Islam, but not Islam alone - have felt the need to fight back.

Offence, real or imagined, has taken hold of our civil society - not that there has ever been a halcyon period when it went away. Our Backward Glance archive (page 63) recalls the successful blasphemy prosecution of Gay News in the 1970s by Mary Whitehouse for publishing a poem about a Roman centurion and his homosexual feelings for Christ.

In more recent years, these objections have assumed a far more militant character. It was Sikhs in Birmingham who forced the abandonment of the play Behzti, on the grounds that it showed a scene of rape and murder within a gurdwara, or temple. The writer was driven into hiding. It was Christians who tried to force the BBC not to show Jerry Springer: the opera, requiring the corporation to take unprecedented safety measures. And now this: publication of cartoons leading to death and destruction in the Middle East and protests in London calling for violent retribution. The first signs of contrition by some demonstrators are welcome, but they should not deter the state from prosecuting. Any sense of preferential treatment for one community will exacerbate tensions. The juxtaposition of the verdicts handed down to the BNP leader Nick Griffin and Abu Hamza does little to help.

The words "journalist" and "responsibility" sit uneasily together. The latter connotes self-censorship and sometimes cowardice in the face of authority or other forms of pressure. One of the toughest tasks facing any editor or reporter is to make a risk assessment. They do it regularly on legal and taste grounds; they do it on grounds of safety to a correspondent on assignment. Publish and be damned may appeal to the macho in the journalist, but it was always a myth. In his media column (page 10), our former editor Peter Wilby gives his personal view on why he would not have published the Danish cartoons. He also repeats his regret for publishing a cover in 2002 that was denounced as anti-Semitic. That was never his intention. Now only the lazy and the jaundiced cite that cover as a means of criticising this magazine.

There is nothing brave about causing gratuitous offence. But there is everything courageous about challenging the powerful, about exposing facts that individuals and institutions would rather stayed hidden.

Brown's delicate constitution

Apart from the gimmick of a "national day", there was much to commend in Gordon Brown's recent speech on Britishness. The Chancellor and leader-in-waiting talked of defining shared values and determining a more ambitious relationship between state and individual. He has already called for parliament to be granted the final say on decisions of war. He has set out ideas for greater public involvement in local decision-making. All good, but not good enough. He is in danger of being outdone by that inveterate gazumper, David Cameron.

The Conservative leader says his review of royal prerogative - transferring to parliament powers vested in the monarch - is only the first stage in a larger constitutional reform. Sure, oppositions do this kind of thing - pace Labour pre-1997 - only to trim when in office. But unlike Tony Blair, Cameron appears to believe that this is more than a chattering-class issue. He may have learned from the past few years that governments are judged as much by the process of legislating as by the content of the legislation itself.

Labour's cup is half empty (or full, depending on one's expectations): devolution for Scotland and Wales (largely successful), incorporation of European human-rights law (tricky), freedom of information (trickier still), and other bits and pieces. It did not meet the promises of those optimistic times, and does not now add up to a constitutional settlement that is a prerequisite to restoring faith in the political process.

As he enlists the help of Blair's backroom team, Brown should be mindful that there may be more votes in constitutional issues than the parties realise. So how about this brief checklist? The creation of a powerful elected second chamber; reform of the Commons, charging select committees with ratifying all major appointments; a clean-up of party funding; and the establishment of a bill of rights. Whatever Cameron suggests, Brown can match it, and raise it by a few.

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