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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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What did Jeremy Corbyn really say about Bin Laden?

He's been critiqued for calling Bin Laden's death a "tragedy". But what did Jeremy Corbyn really say?

Jeremy Corbyn is under fire for describing Bin Laden’s death as a “tragedy” in the Sun, but what did the Labour leadership frontrunner really say?

In remarks made to Press TV, the state-backed Iranian broadcaster, the Islington North MP said:

“This was an assassination attempt, and is yet another tragedy, upon a tragedy, upon a tragedy. The World Trade Center was a tragedy, the attack on Afghanistan was a tragedy, the war in Iraq was a tragedy. Tens of thousands of people have died.”

He also added that it was his preference that Osama Bin Laden be put on trial, a view shared by, among other people, Barack Obama and Boris Johnson.

Although Andy Burnham, one of Corbyn’s rivals for the leadership, will later today claim that “there is everything to play for” in the contest, with “tens of thousands still to vote”, the row is unlikely to harm Corbyn’s chances of becoming Labour leader. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.