However we cover Islam will offend some – we’ll live with it

The Only Way is Ethics: It is just as important that editors can decide against publication of material as it is that they can decide in favour

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The Independent Online

Such has been the dominance of the horrific news from France over the past few days, it is perhaps no surprise that media coverage of the terrorism witnessed there has itself been the subject of considerable debate.

Various issues have been raised by Independent readers. One, writing from France, expressed dismay that we had shown images in which the faces of individual gendarmes were visible. This, she thought, might put them in danger of being recognised by terrorists. It may be an understandable anxiety but – particularly in the absence of evidence that such images intolerably increase the risk faced by the police – deciding no longer to depict members of the emergency services, or choosing to pixelate faces as a matter of course, would be a huge step. In the interests of transparency and accountability, pictures of the police ought to remain an element of legitimate reportage.

Another reader was worried that our quoting of controversial remarks made by activist Anjem Choudary might lead some to think his views were representative of Muslims. It was made clear that Choudary has form for extreme statements.  But we could perhaps have been more explicit in noting that his opinions have little traction among mainstream Muslims.

The major talking point, however, has been about how the media should respond to the notion that the terrorists’ attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo was fundamentally a challenge to the freedom of expression that is so central to western liberal values. For some, the issue boiled down to a question about whether or not newspapers and magazines should republish cartoons of the prophet Mohamed, which had appeared in Charlie Hebdo and which seemed to have motivated the cowardly actions of the murderers.

 

Some readers felt strongly that it was preferable to meet hatred with tolerance and therefore not to republish images that were likely to cause a degree of offence to many Muslims, not just extremists. Others were equally convinced that failure to use the cartoons amounted to the appeasement of a menacing ideology.

I have nothing against publication of the material in question per se. I have spent 15 years defending the right of the press to offend sensibilities – and I have been frequently denounced for doing so. But is republication of the cartoons so utterly crucial?

In the first place, it seems somewhat reductive to bring complex questions about what turns conservative Islamic conviction into cold-blooded murder down to a single totemic issue, however understandable the desire to find something that symbolises the principles of the victims. Second, it seems safe to assume that terrorists would like nothing better than to see European media publish the cartoons en masse if it does anything to heighten a sense of the West versus Islam. 

Moreover, different publications have diverse editorial tones – surely a better defence of press freedom would be to celebrate that fact, rather than to argue that there is only one legitimate way for free media to respond to last week’s outrage.    

In a piece on Wednesday I suggested there might be other suitable ways to show solidarity with those who had died in the name of free expression (Dave Brown’s magnificent cartoon on Thursday was one brilliant example). A lot of those commenting on our website thought this gutless. 

To experience the heat for not running potentially offensive content was rather refreshing. But, in the final analysis, it is just as important that editors can decide against publication, as it is that they can decide in favour – and be damned either way.

Will Gore is Deputy Managing Editor of The Independent, i, Independent on Sunday and the Evening Standard

Twitter: @willjgore

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