On the Guardian’s decision not to print Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of Mohammed

In an editorial following the Charlie Hebdo murders, the Guardian explained why they chose not to publish Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of Mohammed:

Some, though, are looking for other shows of support. In social media, the call has been loud – and aimed at several British newspapers, including this one – to take a stand by publishing the very images that made Charlie Hebdo a target. For the most vociferous, republishing a sample of the magazine’s usual fare, which the Guardian has already done, is not enough: they insist that true defenders of free speech would reprint Charlie Hebdo’s depictions of the prophet Muhammad, especially the crudest, most scatological examples.

That case is straightforward. Since these are the images the gunmen wanted to stop, the surviving free press is obliged to deny the killers that victory. No other gesture can show that we refuse to be cowed by their crime. By repeating Charlie Hebdo’s action, we would demonstrate our resistance to the edict the terrorists sought to enforce on pain of death. We show that Charlie Hebdo was not alone.

There is an appealing simplicity to that stance, but it rests on faulty logic. The key point is this: support for a magazine’s inalienable right to make its own editorial judgments does not commit you to echo or amplify those judgments. Put another way, defending the right of someone to say whatever they like does not oblige you to repeat their words.

There are two points I’d like to make in response:

  • The purpose of printing the cartoons that the gunmen wanted stopped is not just to establish solidarity with the victims here but to show those who use violence to try and suppress publications they don’t like that their violence won’t work. However I grant that donating £100k for Charlie Hebdo to continue publishing, as the Guardian have done, is an alternative means of achieving the same goal.
  • If Charlie Hebdo was targeted because they published certain cartoons, as seems likely, and you’re reporting the story then you should publish those cartoons so that the readers can see exactly what it is that the gunmen are claiming they’re committing murder for. Failing to publish them misses out a key part of the story. I felt the British media let people down in 2006 when they failed to publish the Danish cartoons on 2 grounds – failing to stand up properly to the violent intimidation of Jyllends-Posten and failing to let British readers know exactly what all the fuss is about. I think the Guardian has failed on the second point again here.
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