A crowd of supporters hold up “Je Suis Charlie” signs. Photo: Franck Pennant/AFP/Getty Images
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If you don’t speak French, how can you judge if Charlie Hebdo is racist?

Prominent writers have chosen to boycott a PEN gala in honour of Charlie Hebdo. But are they in any position to pass judgement?

I’m the Irish guy who writes for Charlie Hebdo. I’m conscious that this sounds like the beginning of a joke. Frankly, it’s beginning to feel a little like that too. As the only English-speaking columnist, I feel uncomfortably exotic. And you should see the things they write about me on the toilet walls.

I have no remit. I can write about anything I fancy. This is a hellish liberty. Nothing asked, nothing expected. It makes me dizzy. No matter how random or foolish, they’ll run it. I can’t even begin to describe how tempted I am to write about cricket. Just to see.

So it is, in itself, strange to be there. But stranger still it is to turn my eyes to the doings of the English-speaking world since I joined Charlie. Last week, Queen’s University Belfast (my hometown, no less) cancelled a conference about the events around January’s attack upon the magazine’s staff*. They were worried about their reputation, apparently. Huh? Then this week, a fistful of writers decide to boycott a PEN event in New York which is to honour Charlie. Really?

I read the papers and the blogs and the general runes. The growing consensus seems to be that Charlie Hebdo is, at the very least, deeply dodgy, if not overtly racist. Well, that’s a blow, I must say. Who knew I’d end up writing for some cartoon version of Mein Kampf?

Much of this anti-Charlie prissiness comes from how the magazine has been typified in the Anglo press. ie, idiotically for the most part. An infinity of pundits have made blithe diagnoses of general knavishness while not speaking any French at all.

This bears repeating. No. French. At. All. The point about language is absolutely crucial. Indeed, it may well be the only real point. It is so preposterous that it makes my head spin. How can you make any sensible judgement about Charlie if you cannot read it? Is it enough to look at the pictures? Didn't we used to hesitate before doing something so confidently asinine? Can you imagine how enraged we would be if monolingual French people judged Private Eye or Spitting Image with the same blind assurance.

Do the writers boycotting Charlie in New York all speak French? If they don’t, then, seriously, how informed can their opinions be? You might as well ask your budgie for comment. So, Feathers, what’s your view?

Am I wrong about this? Am I missing something really obvious?

It would be wrong to single out a particular newspaper or website for opprobrium. It’s almost everywhere and it’s almost everyone. I cringe with embarrassment every time a French person asks me what is going on. I’ve started pretending I’m Swedish.

A lot of this is centred around a cartoon that depicted Christiane Taubira, the French justice minister, as an ape. It is much-reproduced without its line of text Rassemblement Bleu Raciste (Racist Blue Rally). A crucial detail since it lampoons the Front National slogan Rassemblement Bleu Marine (Navy Blue Rally), a pun on the name of the FN leader Marine Le Pen. And the image itself was a mocking attack on a series of right-wing publications and websites bunged to the brim with disgraceful imagery of the minister. Without the snipped-off text underneath, and the knowledge of the lamentable tosh it was lampooning, of course Charlie would seem racist. It would seem racist to me too. But to strip the image of its fundamental components like this is akin to saying the incomparable Jonathan Swift was a baby-eating Nazi and that A Modest Proposal was actually a cookbook.

I will not weary your eyes and ears with a full disquisition on this Taubira cartoon. Both the truth and the lie are very easily found on the internet, and complete – like all modern lies and truths – with their very contemporary equal billing. 

Charlie is often vulgar, puerile and slightly nauseating. But everyone endures the brunt of this approach: right, left and in-between. They are not always funny (they are French, after all). But sometimes, that is because they are doing 4-page spreads on the reality of Roma camps in France or doggedly chronicling the gross extremes of France's lurch to the right.

They have a weekly space for animal rights stories, for Chrissakes!!! Run by a woman who calls herself Luce Lapin. With the best will in the world, even if Lucy Rabbit wanted to be a racist or a fascist, how good at it would she be with a name like that? What would all the other racists and fascists think? The truth about the Charlie people is that they're ...well...just a little bit geeky.

Yes, Charlie is tasteless and discomfiting. Have I somehow missed all the gentle, polite satire? That amiable, convenient satire that everybody likes.

If you speak French and you tell me you think Charlie is racist, I can respect that. If you don’t speak French and you tell me the same, well (how to put this politely?)...sorry, I can’t actually put it politely.

I am limitlessly proud to write for Charlie.

*Queen’s has, courageously, announced that it will revisit this decision.

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The Manchester attack will define this election: Broadcasters have a careful line to tread

It's right that the government should be given a chance to respond, but they must not be allowed to use it to campaign.

Every election campaign has its story, its place in the political history of this country. 2017 will forever be known for Manchester and the horror of the attack on Britain's young; and fighting terrorism will be a theme, overt or underlying, of what we see and hear between now and polling day.

The broadcasters have covered the events comprehensively yet sensitively. But they are aware that we're in an election campaign too; and when other news drives aside the carefully-balanced campaign formats, ministerial appearances give them a dilemma.

The fact is that what the Prime Minister and Home Secretary are doing in response to Manchester is newsworthy. It was Theresa May's duty to implement the recommendations of her security advisers on the elevation of the terror alert, and it would have been unthinkable for the news channels not to broadcast her various statements.

But it is also true that, if the bomb hadn't been detonated, Tuesday would have been a day in which the PM would have been under relentless damaging scrutiny for her u-turn on social care. All the opposition parties would have been in full cry across the airwaves. Yet in the tragic circumstances we found ourselves, nobody could argue that Downing Street appearances on the terror attack should prompt equal airtime for everyone from Labour to Plaid Cymru.

There are precedents for ministers needing to step out of their party roles during a campaign, and not be counted against the stopwatch balance of coverage. Irish terrorism was a factor in previous elections and the PM or Northern Ireland secretary were able to speak on behalf of the UK government. It applied to the foot and mouth epidemic that was occupying ministers' time in 2001. Prime ministers have gone to foreign meetings before, too. Mrs Thatcher went to an economic summit in photogenic Venice with her soulmate Ronald Reagan three days before the 1987 election, to the irritation of Neil Kinnock.

There are plenty of critics who will be vigilant about any quest for party advantage in the way that Theresa May and Amber Rudd now make their TV and radio appearances; and it’s inevitable that a party arguing that it offers strength and stability will not object to being judged against these criteria in extreme and distressing times.

So it's necessary for both broadcasters and politicians to be careful, and there are some fine judgements to be made. For instance, it was completely justifiable to interview Amber Rudd about the latest information from Manchester and her annoyance with American intelligence leaks. I was less comfortable with her being asked in the same interview about the Prevent strategy, and with her response that actions would follow "after June", which edges into party territory and would be a legitimate area to seek an opposition response.

When the campaigning resumes, these challenges become even greater. Deciding when the Prime Minister is speaking for the government and nation, or when she is leader of the Conservative Party, will never be black and white. But I would expect to see the broadcast bulletins trying to draw clearer lines about what is a political report and what is the latest from Manchester or from G7. They must also resist any efforts to time ministerial pronouncements with what's convenient for the party strategists' campaign grid.

There might also usefully be more effort to report straight what the parties are saying in the final days, with less spin and tactical analysis from the correspondents. The narrative of this election has been changed by tragedy, and the best response is to let the politicians and the public engage as directly as possible in deciding what direction the nation should now take.

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

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