Leading article: A more responsible approach to the debate on freedom of speech


The bitter recriminations being traded over the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohamed in an unflattering light emphasise the interconnectedness of our world. Not so long ago, what a Danish newspaper chose to publish would probably never have reached the attention of people in the Middle East or the wider Muslim world. But thanks to instant global communications, the controversy has spread like a forest fire in high winds. In just a few days, the matter has been elevated into a symbolic clash between two divergent cultural traditions. But this is more than a difference of opinion between distant peoples. The sight of Muslim citizens demonstrating in European cities shows that this has also become a test of the relationship between European countries and their own minorities.

As we argued yesterday, the Danish newspaper that first published these cartoons had a perfect right to do so. But while we defend Jyllands-Posten's right to publish, we also question its editorial judgement. It is not a decision we intend to emulate. This newspaper could have published the photos at the centre of this row to make a point about free speech - as newspapers in Germany, France, Italy and Spain have done - but we believe this would have been a rather cheap gesture. There is no merit in causing gratuitous offence, as these cartoons undoubtedly do. We believe it is possible to demonstrate our commitment to the principle of free speech in more sensible ways.

It is interesting that the entire mainstream British press feels the same way. No national newspaper has printed the cartoons. And the television news companies have used them discreetly to illustrate their coverage. In some respects this is odd. Britain enjoys perhaps the most competitive news media in the world. Our newspapers are not renowned for their oversensitivity to the consequences of their actions. "Publish and be damned" is the usual attitude. But not this time. And it is worth examining why.

British institutions, for all their faults, have a greater cultural sensitivity than their continental counterparts. There is a broad recognition in Britain that there is a difference between robust questioning of someone's belief system and crass insults. This is due, in no small part, to our tradition of multiculturalism. We do not expect cultural "integration" of our minorities. This has led to a greater sense of understanding and dialogue between different groups. There are strains, a fact made glaringly obvious in the aftermath of the 7 July bombings of London. But, on the whole, we are in a better position than many of our continental neighbours.

There is a shameful degree of social segregation in Europe. The ghetto-like condition of Bradford is an aberration here. Abroad it is often the norm. There is a dearth of representation too. Substantial ethnic minorities are still hard to find in many continental parliaments. There are few brown or black faces on TV screens. In Britain we have also managed to shed many of our more overtly malign cultural affectations. In Spain and Italy it is still common to hear monkey chants directed at black players at football matches.

Of course, one could argue that racist attitudes in Britain have been merely suppressed rather than eliminated. The continued existence of the British National Party would seem to suggest so. And it would also be difficult to claim that Britain has escaped direct involvement in this controversy solely as a result of our superior approach to cultural relations. There are many complicated factors at play in this affair. And we must guard against complacency. Nevertheless, the responsible manner in which the British media has so far dealt with this affair reflects well on the sort of society we have - after much painful effort - become.

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