Newspapers for sale in London. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Republish and be damned – what should our newspapers do with the Charlie Hebdo cartoons?

Calls to reprint the images leave editors with a difficult choice.

My first angry response on hearing of the ghastly massacre at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris was to think that every major newspaper in Europe, if not the world, should publish the magazine’s offending cartoons, no matter how crude and scatological, as a gesture of solidarity. If social media is any guide, many others thought the same. Western journalists profess their dedication to the ideals of free speech but, unlike their counterparts in, say, modern-day Russia or the Middle East, or 1930s Germany, they are rarely required to put their bodies on the line or even face loss of liberty. Here was our chance to show what we are made of, to give substance to the slogan “Je suis Charlie”.

 

Editors’ explanations

It took me about five minutes to realise this wasn’t a good idea. Evidently nearly every editor agreed. Before Charlie Hebdo’s first post-atrocity edition (of which more later), among mainstream British media only the Times and BBC1’s 10pm news bulletin ran a single example of its images of Muhammad.

In his regular Saturday column, Amol Rajan, the editor of the Independent, told readers who thought he “should have had the guts” to run a representation of the Prophet on the front page: “I have to balance principle with pragmatism, and won’t endanger staff who don’t choose what goes on the front.” Which sounds fine, except that he could, on this occasion, have tried asking the staff.

In his Sunday Times column, Dominic Lawson, ex-editor of the Sunday Telegraph, permitted himself “a mirthless cackle” at the “nous sommes tous Charlie” headlines. But, he confessed, “as an editor I would not have dared stand out from the crowd”.

 

Solidarity v blasphemy

At least Rajan and Lawson tried to be honest. Most editors didn’t explain their decision. In an unsigned leader, the Guardian offered an explanation that was, to me, unconvincing. “Each and every publication,” it argued, “has a different purpose and ethos . . . [Charlie Hebdo’s purpose] was to satirise and provoke in a distinctive voice, one that would not sit easily in other publications.” Roy Greenslade, the Guardian’s media blogger, got closer to the heart of the matter. Editors “had to ask themselves if they should gratuitously insult a religion and its adherents, because a very small group of fanatics had misused its teachings”.

The revulsion against representations of Muhammad is not confined to extreme Islamists. Most Muslims regard such images as blasphemous. Though some believe that publishing them should be against the law – as blasphemy against Christianity officially was in England and Wales until 2008 and remains so in Scotland and Northern Ireland – very few agree that the offence justifies execution.

You may say that, since blasphemy laws haven’t been enforced for many years, British Christians have to grin and bear it. But they are members of a secure and established faith that forms the backdrop to many state occasions. British Muslims, though less marginalised than they were, are members of an insecure minority that still sometimes suffers discrimination. “British values” and “western liberal values” may seem questionable abstractions to them. Their religion alone, they may feel, gives them identity and pride. Though I defend to the death, etc, Charlie’s indiscriminately savage satire is not to my taste: satire should upset the powerful, not hurt those who lack power. The grand solidarity gesture therefore risks alienating large numbers of Muslims by seeming to use the murders as an excuse to gang up against them.

 

Cartoons as news

There is another reason for publishing the cartoons: to show what the fuss is about. That is what the press normally does. In 2002, in a painful episode of my editorship, an NS cover was widely denounced as anti-Semitic. I had no anti-Semitic intent and apologised at length. Newspapers reprinted the cover to illustrate the story. In later years, they sometimes used it to illustrate quite unconnected stories about the NS. Newspapers often print anti-Semitic cartoons from the Middle East to show extremes of Jew-hatred. Yet, after the Charlie attacks, the Observer ran a whole page on “Islam’s rich history of images of the Prophet” without showing any examples of such images.

Is the distress or the offence created among Jews by anti-Semitic images any less than that created among Muslims by representations of Muhammad, most of which are not as hostile as Charlie’s cartoons? It is not for me to say. But we should distinguish between reprinting cartoons in the cause of solidaristic defiance – presumably with a presentation that conveys that intention – and reprinting them as a normal news service to readers. Few drew that distinction.

 

Covering the cover

In the end, the Guardian and Independent did the right thing (sort of). In print and online, to illustrate stories about Charlie Hebdo’s first post-atrocity issue, they published, though not very prominently, the cartoon of Muhammad that appeared on its cover. On their websites, they warned readers of possible offence. The two papers are often accused by rivals of overindulging Muslim and other minority sensitivities. However, the Mail, Express, Mirror and Sun did not reproduce the cover; the Telegraph reproduced only the top half, omitting the cartoon. And the most offensive cartoons remained, in all papers, unpublished. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle