In the wake of the recent firebomb attack which destroyed the offices of France’s satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo after it had published an edition “guest edited” by the Islamic prophet Muhammad, its British equivalent Private Eye carried a spoof article which contained an admirable dig at itself. Headlined “Satirical Magazine Doesn’t Put Muhammad on Cover —Offices Not Firebombed”, it carried a quote from “the editor”: “It was an act of some courage to make this decision, but I thought it would be much braver to attack the Church of England instead.”
Such self-knowledge is greatly to Private Eye‘s credit. The attack was reported here, but it barely registered among the commentariat. The Eye‘s piece also contained a greater truth, which is that the British media, and in particular the satire business, whether in print or broadcast, has generally taken a craven attitude to the giving of offence where that supposed offence might have real consequences, i.e. when it is directed towards Islam.
In contrast, Charlie Hebdo‘s editor Stéphane Charbonnier showed a clear-headed courage when he said after the attack that Islam could not be treated as a special case when it came to the freedom of the press. The magazine had received threats on Facebook and Twitter before the attack, so he must have known the chance he was taking. The cover of the magazine, which had been renamed Charia Hebdo, featured a cartoon representation of what was presumably meant to be Muhammad with the strapline: “100 lashes if you’re not dying of laughter”. This was followed in the next edition by a cover featuring a cartoon version of Charlie Hebdo in a passionate gay embrace with a bearded Muslim man. “If we can poke fun at everything in France, if we can talk about anything in France apart from Islam or the consequences of Islamism, that is annoying,” said Charbonnier.
There was broad condemnation of the attack from most parts of the French political spectrum. French journalists told me that in private, media and political folk were asking whether such a cover had been really necessary, but in public they united in upholding the right to publish. In Britain, the position taken would have been precisely the other way round.
The incident was considered serious enough for the prime minister, François Fillon, to weigh in. “Freedom of expression is an inalienable right in our democracy,” he said, “and all attacks on the freedom of the press must be condemned with the greatest firmness.” It is a depressing fact that such a comment from a senior British politician in similar circumstances here would be more or less inconceivable. Indeed, there have been similar circumstances: the home of the director of the publishers Gibson Square was firebombed in 2008, after it was announced that it would be handling the UK publication of the novel The Jewel of Medina (it was subsequently cancelled). There was silence from our political establishment. Perhaps in Britain, there would have to be deaths before heads were raised above the political parapet to defend the right to cause offence.