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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Pentagon has suggested that, since the campaign started, some 10,000 Isis fighters in Iraq and Syria have been killed  

War with Isis: If US wants to destroy the group, it will need to train Syrians and Iraqis

David Usborne
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy