Paris attacks: The media doesn't have to publish Charlie Hebdo's most controversial cartoons to show its support

There are other ways to rally around freedom of speech

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Today’s terrorist atrocity in Paris was, at its most basic level, an attack on innocent men and women designed to cause widespread panic and fear. Yet it appears also to have been motivated by a desire to defy Europe’s entrenched media freedoms and to denounce, in the most bloody way, one of the central tenets of western liberalism – the right to offend.

We have been here before. Following the publication of cartoons which depicted the Prophet Mohammed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 there were violent protests around the world, including the UK. If anybody doubted ten years ago that publishing images of the Prophet had the potential to cause serious levels of anger, nobody surely would have questioned it since.

And yet satirical magazines such as Charlie Hebdo have continued to niggle at the sore spot, unwilling to bend in the face of threats and attacks. It republished the Jyllands-Posten cartoons. And in 2011 its Paris office was largely destroyed by a petrol bomb, apparently thrown in response to an edition of the magazine that featured a caricature of the Prophet and an editorial in his name.

The carnage witnessed today on the streets of the French capital bears witness to the level of anger that Charlie Hebdo’s provocative material can engender. And while recourse to terrorism can have no justification, some might wonder why the magazine’s publishers continued to act in a way that they knew would inflame the passions of a minority.

But the liberal tradition being based so fundamentally around the right to freedom of expression must, by necessity, permit the right to offend others. If a magazine decides that a certain issue – be it religion, gender politics, immigration or anything else – is worthy of confrontational satirical treatment then it must have the right to proceed as it sees fit.

So how should we make a stand for that right? Should Europe’s mainstream media heed the call to act in solidarity and republish some of Charlie Hebdo’s most biting material?

 

Well certainly we could do and there may be a few who say it is a cop out to vouch for press freedom and yet not show the kind of images which caused such grave offence. Yet there are other ways to support the principle of free expression than simply to publish material which we would probably not use in other circumstances.

An equally suitable way to show our solidarity would be for the media – and for us all – to push back more strongly against the tide of hysterical offence that is the daily response to a comedian pushing the boundaries of good taste or to Katie Hopkins’s latest utterance. By accepting that our own sensibilities can legitimately be affronted we stand up for the right which Charlie Hebdo’s journalists have been killed for exercising.

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