Last night I tweeted that none of the UK newspapers has dared to show a single cartoon from the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine on today’s front pages. This has been retweeted over 1,500 times and counting. For the Twitter-unitiated, that is a lot. My tweet hit a nerve and I want to explain why I think that is.
The Charlie Hebdo massacre was, for me, even more affecting that the usual indiscriminate Islamist terror attacks. The gunmen targeted political satirists and cartoonists – they killed the clowns. At base it was, as has been said a million times already, an attack on freedom.
Charlie Hebdo is a left-wing satirical magazine. Safe to say it is anti-religious, amongst other things. It has printed many cartoons of religious leaders including of Mohammed. The magazine’s offices were firebombed in 2011 after it changed its title to Charia Hebdo (a play on Sharia, the Islamic system of law). Its staff were under constant threat but remained unbowed.
A selection of covers were reproduced by a German newspaper this morning as well as others. Have a look. Some of the images are offensive and nasty, some borderline hateful, but Charlie Hebdo was not at heart a racist publication. The images of Mohammed are pretty benign.
So it is legitimate to ask why none of the mainstream UK press decided to print those images on their covers, unlike for example the Belgian and German press. Instead, there was much carping about attacks on freedom and a number of photographs of a dying French policeman. There were many strong statements of support, but nobody dared show Charlie Hebdo itself or the images which prompted the massacre.
The most striking cover was the Independent’s, which printed a cartoon version of Charlie Hebdo without an image on its cover, but with a hand emerging holding aloft a middle finger. This, for me, sums up the problem. The image was an attempt at defiance, but the failure to depict the true nature of Charlie Hebdo reduced the cartoon to a petulant capitulation, a pale imitation of the magazine itself.
Why the mass self-censorship? I think it was two kinds of fear.
The first was the fear of putting staff’s lives at risk. Fair enough. What decent employer would want to invite another massacre? The threat of Islamist terrorism is as high in London as it is in Paris, so the fear is real. It is one thing for a journalist to put their own life at risk by, for instance, reporting from a war zone, but it is another to put colleague’s lives at risk through irresponsible reporting.
But the Times journalist David Aaronovitch has a point when he says that a “reason why Charlie Hebdo could be singled out for attack is because the rest of us have been cowards“. Fear, says Aaronovitch, has caused us to surrender to the terrorists by refusing to ridicule Islam. Because of a longstanding failure to print images which might cause offence or violence, publications like Charlie Hebdo became outliers which were easily singled out and targeted.
There is a second kind of fear, and it is more pernicious. It is the fear of causing offence. We have become obsessed with this in the UK, to the extent that it is even illegal to cause “gross offence” on social media. I have written about this before. Indeed, people are regularly imprisoned for posting offensive jokes on Facebook.
There is a line between legitimate satire and hate-mongering. I am not sure where it is though, and I am certain the police don’t know either. It is right to criminalise speech which results in violence, but we have now gone too far. Criminalising offensiveness has had a chilling effect on speech, and this has been compounded by the press’s self-censorship.
Aaronovich and others are right to say that this fear dressed as tolerance has done damage to our press. It has driven certain kinds of satire underground. It probably has its roots in the Salman Rushdie controversy, but the white flag has been raised repeatedly since 1989. To an extent, our press has sold its independence in return for physical safety.
Some will say that the refusal to print images of Mohammed is justified by a general enthusiasm to ridicule terrorists. But when it comes to Islamist terrorism, the two are intrinsically linked. It is impossible properly to satirise these terrorists without getting to the heart of their motivation, which is Islam – or at least, their violent version of it. It is like lampooning Hitler whilst avoiding talking about Naziism.
The UK supposedly has a bold and fearless press. At least, that is the narrative we are sold… by the press. But where was that fearlessness today? Effective political satire is always dangerous, not necessarily physically but it inevitably it will be risky to the publisher. And the more effective it is, the greater danger it will cause. It seems that in the UK the press has lost its nerve.
I am not here blaming the press for the massacre. That is the fault of the men who fired the guns. But this is as good at time as any to ask if our fear of causing offence is doing us damage. Today, we are not “all Charlie Hebdo“, to paraphrase the Twitter hashtag. What we are is afraid.
This piece was first published in the Huffington Post