What a perfect tribute to satire the Paris march turned out to be

Perhaps "I don't agree with what you say, but defend your right to say it" gets lost in translation to Arabic

Mark Steel
Thursday 15 January 2015 19:58 GMT

To start with, we should congratulate the Prime Minister of Israel and ambassador for Saudi Arabia, for honouring satire in its time of need, by turning up to a march for free speech and against violence and murder.

Across Gaza, people must have sat in the rubble that used to be their living room or local hospital and said: “Fair play to Netanyahu, at least he knows how to have a laugh.”

And Raif Badawi will appreciate the Saudi government’s presence on a day for free speech, because he’s been sentenced to one thousand lashes by the Saudi government for setting up a liberal website. They must be lashing him for not being critical enough I suppose.

If the Saudis were really imaginative they could have taken Badawi to Paris, and dragged him through the streets on the march. His screams as his lacerated back bounced over the cobbles at Place de la Concorde would have made a marvellous satirical statement.

Or it’s possible the famous phrase that, “I don’t like what you say but will defend your right to say it,” gets lost in translation to the Arabic, and comes out as, “I may disagree with what you say, in which case I’ll strap you to a stick and rip your skin off”. Presumably the judge said to him: “Your website shouldn’t just be liberal, it should show cartoons of the King riding around on a pig at the very least. Take off your shirt.”

It was also cheery to see Sergei Lavrov, Putin’s foreign minister, having a giggle by showing up. Because the first thing you think whenever you see Putin is how much he loves it when journalists take the piss out of him.

“Make my nose more grotesque, I’m not hideous enough,” he shouts at legions of cartoonists employed to mock him. And he was genuinely angered by the shootings in Paris, because he’s adamant that critics in the press should be poisoned, not shot, as it’s much less messy.

Alongside the Russian was Sameh Shoukry, foreign minister for Egypt, where his government has jailed Al Jazeera’s journalists. What a good sport Shoukry was, prepared to send himself up by marching for free speech, hopefully with a placard saying: “Je suis Al Jazeera.”

Because everyone agrees it’s essential to allow things to be broadcast, even if we don’t like them. Newspapers such as The Sun and the Daily Mail have been especially passionate about this issue, which must explain why they’ve never criticised the BBC or Channel 4 for showing anything too sexual; or with swearing; or critical of the Royal Family.

They were particularly animated a few years ago after Russell Brand’s unpleasant prank with an answerphone. I don’t recall what they said exactly, but presumably it must have been: “We may not agree with it, but we defend to the death the right to broadcast whatever message he left.”

Satire, The Sun has insisted all week, is an essential part of our democracy because it mocks the powerful. That’s why they’ve always taken the side of the common person, and happily sent up important figures, such as newspaper owners, as in that biting sketch where the head of a media empire suddenly forgets everything he’s ever done when he’s in front of a phone-hacking inquiry.

“It’s essential to allow satire to puncture those in charge,” agree those in charge. So David Cameron and the Mail would love it if an act at the Royal Variety performance did a sketch called Benefits Palace, featuring all the royals screaming it was their right to live off the state. “What a splendid example of our freedom of speech,” they’d all declare.

They’re all resolute that any religion should be able to take a joke, which it undoubtedly should. So now’s the time to make a situation comedy called A History of the Vatican, in which Jimmy Savile is elected Pope because he’s the best at covering up child abuse. “A tour de force, simply delightful,” would be the review in The Times.

Similarly, during one spate of bombing in Gaza, when this newspaper printed a cartoon of the Israeli leader Ariel Sharon eating babies, the Israeli embassy made an official objection to the Press Complaints Commission. The Israeli government appears more concerned than anyone with the right to publish cartoons, so I’m sure if you look back at the records, you’ll find their complaint was that the cartoon should have been much more vicious. Because you can’t put a price on the right to publish satire.

This is why there should only be one regret about the choice of personnel to lead the march for peace and freedom of speech. The ultimate satire would have been for the final speaker to have been a representative from al-Qaeda. He could have come on as a surprise guest and begun, “We sent the gunmen, but we thought we’d like to be here anyway”, to rapturous applause, as everyone fell about laughing at the wonderful satire of the absurdity on display.

And it would be easy to film the whole show and put it out as a DVD – jihadists seem quite adept at organising that side of things already.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in