Leading article: This is not just a simple issue of freedoms

Share

There is, of course, no doubt that newspapers should have the right to print cartoons that some people find offensive. Indeed it goes to the very nature of the political cartoon that it seeks to make a point through exaggeration, distortion and caricature - a process which is, by definition, intended to needle those being criticised, or their supporters. In a free society it is proper that speech, and other forms of expression, should be free. Of course, free societies impose some limits on this, for reasons of public order, or to allow individuals redress through libel laws. But these should remain exceptions, which is why it is good that the Government's Racial and Religious Hatred Bill was this week reined in, and why a jury yesterday felt unable to find the BNP leader Nick Griffin - loathsome though his views may be - guilty of inciting racial hatred. The healthiest reaction to free speech which offends is that those offended have the right to answer back in kind.

But there is an important distinction to be made between having a right and choosing to exercise it. The editor of France Soir had the right to reprint the offending cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that first caused a stir in the Danish press. But in doing so he was throwing petrol on the flames of a fire that shows every sign of turning into an international conflagration. Palestinian gunmen yesterday surrounded the EU offices in Gaza to demand an apology over the cartoons, and Norway felt forced to close its mission in the West Bank to the public after threats from two militant groups. European products are being boycotted across the Middle East and envoys being recalled all round the world. The owner of France Soir is clearly alarmed; he has sacked the editor responsible - for the realpolitik of journalism is that proprietors have rights too, which include firing editors whose judgements run counter to the views of the paper's owner or its commercial interests. This too was a decision that opens up questions that have vital implications for a democracy.

It is facile, in so complex a situation, to seek refuge in simple statements about the rights of a free press. Most difficult decisions are not between right and wrong. They are between competing rights. There is a right to exercise an uncensored pen. But there is also a right for people to exist in a secular pluralist society without feeling as alienated, threatened and routinely derided as many Muslims now do. To elevate one right above all others is the hallmark of a fanatic.

When rights conflict, a mature society talks about responsibilities, and how these should balance against rights. Yes, there is a right to see the offending cartoons, if only to form one's own judgement about the gravity of the offence. But most people have sufficient imagination to conceive what these particular cartoons show without the need to reprint them in a way guaranteed to give further offence to a group whose religious tradition forbids any image of Mohammed. Newspapers ignorant of such a fact do no service to their readers.

The balance here is not in favour of rights but of respect. To reprint the cartoons as a gesture of solidarity with free speech would be disproportionate. To publish them to teach Muslims a lesson about the values of a secular society would be, ultimately, little more than a publicity-seeking stunt - and one that is gratuitously offensive and, ultimately, rather juvenile.

The right to free expression is one that this newspaper defends uncompromisingly. But it would be false to present this solely as a debate about freedom of speech. The media have responsibilities as well as rights. There is a deceptive borderline between controversial and irresponsible journalism. Especially in these troubled times, we all must take care that it is not crossed.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Digital Fundraising Analyst/Web Analyst - West Sussex - Permanent - £30k DOE

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Application Support Engineer – 6 month FTC – West Sussex - £26k-£28k pro rata

£26000 - £28000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

Head of IT Change – West Sussex – Up to £60k DOE – Permanent

£55000 - £60000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

IT Services Team Leader

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client, a prog...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Angel of the North  

It’s not because I’m sentimental about the North that I believe it needs devolved powers

Chris Blackhurst
Tony Blair gives a speech in 1996  

What the UK needs right now is the radical Tony Blair it had in the nineties

Christopher Goodfellow
Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?