After Charlie Hebdo, journalists have to be honest about how far they are prepared to go

Anyone can state pieties about defending the right to free speech

Matthew Norman
Tuesday 13 January 2015 14:01 GMT
Remaining ‘Charlie Hebdo’ staff at work, in the ‘Libération’ offices, two days after last week’s shootings
Remaining ‘Charlie Hebdo’ staff at work, in the ‘Libération’ offices, two days after last week’s shootings (AFP/Getty)

In its speed and dramatic sweep, the transformation seems a weird and unsettling echo of just the kind of religious miracle the publication might ordinarily choose to satirise. “Tout est pardonne” - all is forgiven - reads the front-page headline on this week’s edition of Charlie Hebdo, above a drawing of the prophet Mohamed weeping a pencil-shaped tear. And so Je Suis Charlie, that new pan-global tee-shirt shorthand for fearless disdain towards religious piety, becomes Jesus Charlie. The magazine forgives the murderers, it tells us, even though they knew exactly what they did.

This may be a distasteful moment to make the point, but there is something too glibly divine about forgiveness on this scale. Forgiving the utterly unforgivable is the business of God (and then only the Christian God), and possibly Nelson Mandela. Yesterday, a surviving Charlie Hebdo cartoonist told Radio 4’s Today programme that her colleagues, had they lived, would be happy to sit down with the attackers, and amiably talk it all through over coffee. Forgivable in the circumstances though that obviously is, this sanctification of fiercely secular, wilfully offensive satirists into such holy turners of the other cheek sounded clangingly assonant.

That said, and however saccharine the accompanying sentiment, using an image of the prophet on the cover was in itself a splendid act of defiance, if an inevitable one. They could hardly have done otherwise. “You cannot have a march through the streets of Paris attended by 46 world leaders and four million people,” as Boris Johnson put it on Today, “and then not print the central point of objection. It is absolutely vital now that everyone stands and defends their right to publish it. You may not agree with what they have done,” he went on, “you may be offended by what they have they done. But you must defend their right to publish it.”

Well, thanks for that. Boris Johnson from Islington, to borrow from Basil Fawlty, specialist subject: the bleedin’ obvious. Who in their right mind has ever or would ever fail to defend that right in words? The refusal to defend it, after all, is a workable definition of religio-fascistic dementia.

The point at issue is not whether one shows solidarity with dead of Paris in word. It is whether you - or we, more aptly, in the media - are prepared to so in deed, by publishing depictions of the prophet with a prominence likely to attract the attentions of the kind of crazies who went hunting with their AK47s in Paris last week. Would Boris, were he still editing the Spectator, put an intentedly offensive cartoon on Muhammed on the cover in defence of the human right to cause offence? Would he risk his life?

Anyone can state pieties about defending the right to free speech, just as anyone can march in a gigantic throng. Among those who did on Sunday were not only Benjamin Nethanyanu - a man no more Charlie than another attendee, the British ambassador whose job is to cuddle up to the ruling house of Saudi Arabia. There was Ahmet Davutoglu, the prime minister of Turkey, which imprisons more journalists than any other country on earth. He is most certainly not Charlie. But then neither is any of us who would rather avoid a visit from balaclava-clad people bearing Russian-made automatic weapons.

This newspaper reprinted the new Charlie Hebdo cover yesterday at the bottom of an inside page. In this hideous climate, that took some gumption. But no editor would devote a front page to a drawing guaranteed to imperil the lives of its staff.

When Kirk Douglas’s fellow slaves, one by one, cry, “I am Spartacus” at the end of the film, they are staking their candidacy for his berth on the crucifix. In its brief life, on the other hand, Je Suis Charlie has become a statement of the Eriatlov Principle. Voltaire’s overquoted apercu in reverse, it translates as “I may agree with what you say, but I will not defend to the death your right to say it.” No wonder that, in its inside pages, the newly printed Charlie Hebdo lacerates those who have leapt on their bandwagon at no risk to themselves.

The journalists whose lives ended after years of ignoring a danger so clear and present that they required police protection may not have been saints, but they had true courage. Frankly, I’m not convinced they were fighting the war they may have imagined. If satire ever is an effective weapon, it is only against vulnerable individuals. Against a deranged mass movement, it is powerless. How can the terminally humourless be weakened by humour?

In this long struggle to contain a perverted ideology, the drone may be mightier than the Kalashnov. The pencil is not. When the post-traumatic exuberance fades, when the next murderous attack takes place, we might morosely reflect that the deaths of Charb and his colleagues were essentially pointless.

Yet even if this was a desperately tragic instance of “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre”, their cussed defiance was magnificent. We can admire it, venerate it, be humbled by it. What we cannot do is make the false and self-aggrandising pretence that we are Charlie. Weak and feeble sinners such as myself can no less laughably lay claim to the cartoonists's courage than can a viciously satirical journal to the saintly forbearance of Christ.

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