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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Je suis Charlie.

My deepest sympathies to the friends, families and colleagues of the Charlie Hebdo journalists who were murdered by religious fanatics.

Freedom of speech includes the right to peacefully express views others may find offensive. Mere causation of offence should not be a crime, let alone used as an excuse for murder, riots, violence or intimidation.

If we let the risk of causing offence silence us, we allow those who would react violently to anything they dislike to dictate what we say, and freedom of speech thus dies.

It seems to me that the murdered journalists at Charlie Hebdo bravely understood this and sadly paid with their lives. Let us hope the perpetrators are caught.

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The logistical challenge of a twitter “report abuse” button

In light of the reprehensible abuse, including rape threats, received by Caroline Criado-Perez from some Twitter users, there are calls for a “report abuse” button to be added to each tweet. Some have questioned whether this is the right approach on the grounds that it may actually make it easier for those who merely dislike what someone has said to get that person silenced. If Twitter take care to ensure that complaints are properly assessed, including distinguishing between people saying this rashly in the midst of debate and people being genuinely abusive and threatening, then this shouldn’t be a problem. The thing is, implementing such a reporting system will be no mean feat.

To illustrate this, consider that Twitter is generating around 400 million tweets per day (and this figure may grow over time). Assuming that just 1 in 1000 tweets had the “report abuse” button clicked on average, then Twitter would have to handle 400 thousand abuse reports per day, making it a genuine “big data” task. If they were handled by humans (and to minimise the risk of abuse of the feature they should be) and the people employed took on average just 5 mins to process each report, that would entail having 1,389 people employed at all times just to process the tweets. Since humans can’t work 24/7, we’d need to employ at least 3 times the number to ensure 24/7 coverage (assuming 8 hour shifts), and in fact we’d need more than that to take into account holidays, weekends and illness.

Now it may be possible to use automation to reduce the number of reports requiring human handling (if we can identify clear cut cases automatically for example) and to reduce the time spent per tweet, but the more automation there is, the more likely that misuse of the feature may lead to problems or that some cases don’t get properly handled.

That’s not to say it isn’t possible to come up with a system that works (*), just that it’ll require a lot of careful design and testing. But if takes them time to fully implement a new, easier to use system for reporting abuse, this logistical problem may explain why.

(*) Twitter have after all already got a reporting procedure in place, and have started to allow people to report individual tweets from their mobiles.

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How would the independence of Leveson’s regulator be guaranteed?

An independent regulatory body should be established, with the dual roles of promoting high standards of journalism and protecting the rights of individuals.(Leveson Report, Executive Summary, Section 57, page 14, emphasis added)

My earlier article summarised Leveson’s proposals with respect to this body, the aim of this article is to examine the question of how independence is to be achieved. As the executive summary makes clear, the new body should be independent of both the press, MPs and the government. Leveson proposes to achieve this by:

  • Ensuring that a majority of the board are “independent” of the press with no serving editors, MPs or members of the government on it.
  • Requiring the appointments panel to have a “substantial majority” of members independent of the press, and no more than one current editor of a publication that could be a member to be on the panel.
  • Restricting the role of legislation to that of specifiying a process for recognising the regulator (via a recognition body) and certifying that it meets certain criteria laid out in statute.
  • The recognition body will not play any role in regulation of the press.
  • Leveson suggests Ofcom as the recognition body.

Thus we can envisage the following happening if Leveson were implemented in full:

  • Legislation is drawn up specifying the criteria for recognising the press regulator, granting the status of recognition body to Ofcom.
  • MPs will debate and vote on this legislation.
  • Once enacted, Ofcom will set up the appointments panel and they will appoint the board of the press regulator, in accordance with the legislation specifying the criteria by which both the panel and the board are to be appointed.
  • The press regulator, having been set up would oversee drawing up code of conduct, agree funding arrangements with the press, whilst the press would join the regulator based on the benefits Leveson sets out.

The level of independence achieved can thus be described as “operational independence” – its decisions about the code of conduct, whether a member has violated the code, whether to investigate violations of the code and what punishments to apply would be made by the board or by the arbitration service. However MPs will determine the criterion by which the regulator is judged and recognised when they legislate, and Ofcom will be charged with putting these criterion into practice and e.g. whether all “significant news publishers” have become members.

It seems to me this means that the regulator will be no more “independent” of the government than any other quango. It may have operational autonomy, but its role is still determined by MPs. Can we trust the MPs not to frame the criterion by which the regulator operates in a manner that protects their own interests?

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