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Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Blasphemy, self-censorship and the lessons from Paris

Not long after the appalling massacre of cartoonists and others at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, I was at the private viewing of an exhibition at the Cartoon Museum devoted to the work of Mark Boxer. ‘Marc’, as he signed his cartoons, was a brilliant caricaturist. There aren’t so many caricaturists around these days, though Ian Hislop of Private Eye told me that he had a few on his books. I was pleased to run into Charles Yorke, a CIoJ member I had not seen for some years, and whose caricature portraits I always admired. Naturally, every other conversation was on the subject of the Paris attacks. Cartoonists did indeed feel threatened.

In this country we have never had a satirical press quite as tough or extreme as that in France.  Neither Private Eye nor even Viz ever had quite the scabrous quality of Charlie Hebdo or for that matter the political bite of Le Canard Enchaine. For cartoon drawing really intended to offend one would have to go back to the early nineteenth century, to Gillray and others. But one out of the gallery of figures caricatured by Marc caught my attention – it was Lord Longford. Marc clearly regarded Longford as a prick and, as the good Lord was notably dolichocephalic, that is how he drew him, as a “tuberous cock and balls” (to quote from Larkin’s Sunny Prestatyn). Even the editor of the New Statesman, at that time the iconoclastic Richard Crossman, felt he could not publish the portrait, and suggested he could only do so if the torso or lower part of the drawing were cropped! Good taste prevailed, and the caricature was not printed.

Self-censorship has always had a part to play in newspaper and magazine journalism. Some twenty years ago, late in my year as Vice-President of the Institute, I was in Hong Kong en route for Australia and New Zealand. I had hoped to call on one of our members there on the English-language South China Post, but its offices had moved out of the centre to Kowloon and I had to be content with speaking to him on the ’phone from my hotel. How, I asked him, did he see the future of his paper after Britain handed Hong Kong back to China? No great change, he answered: for the past year or so they had been regularly clearing copy with their Beijing office. At the time I thought of this as rather a cop-out, but they were simply taking a pragmatic approach to the handover and making sure they weren’t closed down.

A few years later, in 1998, there was a letter in the Times from my friend Thomas Braun suggesting that A H Clough’s The Latest Decalogue, a satire on Victorian moral values (“Thou shalt have only one God, who/ Would be at the expense of two…”, etc) needed bringing up to date and appending his “Post-Modern Decalogue”. As it happened, I too had a go at updating Clough, and I sent Thomas my own version. Its third couplet reads: “Mock no man’s God, at least until you/ Make sure he lacks the means to kill you”. What I had in mind was the fatwa against Salman Rushdie over his Satanic Verses, but today this instruction seems even more apposite.

The right to offend

Cartoonists, in particular, must always have the right to offend. They need not be continually exercising this right, but it is there all the same. I do have the feeling, though, that there is an increasing tendency to take offence these days. As often as not an outrage story in the press is about something someone said or tweeted rather than anything they actually did. And look at the freedom of expression we have lost through ‘political correctness’. Anything that can be labelled ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’, or is discriminatory against any of a multitude of noisy minority groups is not usually going to make it into print. When it comes to religion, well… blasphemy has suddenly become almost a new capital offence. We have somehow made unacceptability into the accepted way of reacting to anything we don’t like. In this and in our bland acceptance of rules on the use of language – where some words are banned whatever the context – we are all in part to blame for the attitudes that gave rise to the carnage at Charlie Hebdo.

Roger Bush