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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

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry insiders imply that job creation in the UK could rival that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed only one in seven of the jobs the industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that fracking is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we are only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.