There’s one more thing I have to say about Charlie Hebdo, before I shut up. It was at times silly and offensive. It wasn’t that popular; in fact it closed down for a while because of lack of funds. But it is precisely because it was so silly and offensive that the attack on it is so important to think about, while the inevitable debate on press freedom cranks up again.
People talk a lot about the freedom of the press, and we are all led to believe that journalists spend their days toiling after The Truth. Some, maybe. I can think of very honourable examples of these, such as Paul Foot and John Pilger, both of whom had a hard time when they took on the British and Australian Establishment.
Most of us, though, not so much. If some extremist twit with a Kalashnikov had stormed the newsrooms of any of the tabloid newspapers where I worked, he would have been murdering people who were probably just about to press the send button on headlines such as ‘Drink’ll wrinkle your winkle’, or ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster.’
On the face of it, those journalists at Charlie Hebdo weren’t doing anything particularly noble either when they were murdered. They were having a morning meeting, drinking coffee, and probably doodling Francois Hollande doing something unmentionable. To picture them being murdered, is surreal. Did they, in those first few seconds, think it was some kind of a joke? Is it some kind of appalling irony that these satirists were killed by men with no sense of humour?
The difference between Charlie Hebdo and most mainstream newspapers, though, is that it took a shot at every religion going. It published cartoons which some found extremely offensive. But, why not? I read a blog post yesterday in which the blogger stated that he wouldn’t get away with writing about the Queen having oral sex. And yet he demonstrated his liberty to do so, simply by saying that. Has he been arrested? I don’t think so. Has he been torn to shreds by the corgis? No. He was free to say what he damn well pleased. And other people were free not to read it. Same with Charlie Hebdo.
Obviously, we cannot malign people simply because of the way they are (he must be bad because he’s a catholic/protestant/jew/muslim/jedi knight), but if we cannot take pot shots at institutions, if we cannot allow ourselves or others, however outrageously, to question them, then we might as well buy kalashnikovs and shoot ourselves.
Whatever we think of the content of Charlie Hebdo, we have to remember that its office was fire-bombed in 2011, and that the police took the death threats to the editor Stephane Charbonnier seriously enough to give him protection. And yet he and his staff still went on bringing out their mag. If those terrorists hadn’t arrived on Wednesday morning, probably only three men and a dog would have read it.
Not many people like reading offensive material. Charlie Hebdo’s normal print run of about 60,000 (in a country of 66 million people) proved this. In a free society we allow free speech and ignore what we don’t like. But we still make space for it; we respect other people’s opinions, because we want people to respect our own.
Next week Charlie Hebdo is bringing out one million copies. Its cartoons, that the terrorists didn’t like, have now been given much greater coverage than their murdered artists could ever have dreamt of. I didn’t much like some of those cartoons either, but today, Je suis Charlie.
cartoons via Creative Commons available at http://960thepatriot.com/blogs