The media column - Peter Wilby reveals a yellow streak

I would not reprint the Danish cartoons to show solidarity: that would show solidarity with an appar

What Voltaire actually said was, "What a fuss about an omelette!" The more famous "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" was someone else's summary of the great man's views when a book by the philosopher Claude Adrien Helvetius was burned in 1759. But those falsely attributed words will do as a statement of my most deeply held beliefs, as dear to me as the Prophet is to Muslims or the doctrine of the immaculate conception is to Roman Catholics.

So suppose I were still an editor, and those Danish cartoons, which depicted Muhammad and caused so much Muslim anger, dropped on my desk. Would I publish? The conventional answer is that they were not well drawn or funny enough. But that is a cop-out.

The cartoons are not brilliant (judge for yourself at, but I've seen worse, and at least one - suicide bombers being told "Stop, stop, we ran out of virgins!" - raises a grim smile. The proper answer is that I wouldn't have thought of anything quite so daft as commissioning artists to mock the Prophet just to show it could be done. From the drawings alone, you wouldn't necessarily know they depict Muhammad rather than any old imam. They have no context other than the intent to offend.

As a Bristol University sociology professor put it in the Times, "satire should check the powerful, not hurt the powerless". Over the past century, Muslims have seen their lands invaded by western powers, their resources expropriated and their homes bombed. Millions who migrated to the west suffer discrimination and marginalisation. Many feel that, for identity and self-respect, their faith is all they have left. For that reason, insulting Islam is more unacceptable than insulting Christianity, just as racist taunts against blacks are more serious than those against whites.

So far, so good. I have rejected the cartoons for publication. But would I, in the spirit of Voltaire, defend another editor who reached a different decision? Yes, in the sense that I do not think he should be prosecuted or sacked, still less beheaded, even if he fails to apologise. I oppose the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill (even in its amended form) and I oppose making a crime of Holocaust denial. I would not, however, rush to reprint the Danish cartoons purely to show solidarity, as several Continental papers have done. That would show solidarity with an apparently offensive intent as well as with freedom of expression.

I am left with one compelling reason to publish: to illustrate what all the fuss is about. This is standard newspaper practice, and the parallels that some have drawn with child pornography are ridiculous.

Child porn is illegal and almost everybody finds it upsetting, particularly the children involved. Depictions of the Prophet are upsetting only to Muslims, and not to all of them.

Yet I still would not publish. Why? Fear, funk, cowardice, pusillanimity - call it what you will. I would worry for myself, my family, staff and contributors - and for my paper, given the high proportion of Muslims among British newsagents. But I hope I would not dress it up as something else, as nearly all British newspapers have done in recent days. The Guardian, for example, argued that "newspapers are not obliged to republish offensive material merely because it is controversial". But nobody is talking about obligations, only about what the press normally does when it covers this kind of story.

I have a smoking gun. In 2002, under my editorship, the New Statesman, to illustrate a story about British Jews and Israel, ran a cover that was widely denounced as anti-Semitic. I should add that there was no anti-Semitic intent and, as I explained in an apology, I foolishly underestimated the power of iconography and, in this instance, its echoes of the Nazi era. Despite their shock and horror, several papers reprinted the cover, not only at the time, but subsequently to illustrate many other, quite different stories about the NS. Moreover, in recent days, both the Daily Mail and the Independent on Sunday have shown anti-Semitic cartoons from Middle Eastern newspapers.

The British press has form on this. In 2001, the Mail used a rather fine picture of Muhammad to illustrate a piece on Islam by a Cambridge don. To depict the Prophet at all is an offence to many Muslims. So the Mail, not usually an apologetic paper, immediately said sorry, and it wouldn't do it again.

Among all the comments on the Danish cartoons, only the following bluntly stated that fear had dictated the British press response: Matthew Parris and Giles Coren (the latter satirically) in the Times, Kim Fletcher in the Guardian, and (briefly) Stephen Glover in the Independent. Commendations to all four.

As for the editors, they're scaredy-cats, as I would be. But I hope they (and I) would be a touch braver if more than an omelette were at stake.

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