Warning: this article contains the image of the magazine cover, which some may find offensive.
Thus the Guardian newspaper earlier this year when it published the cover of the issue of Charlie Hebdo that followed the slaughter at their Paris office. It featured (see below) a cartoon of a bearded man in a turban holding a JE SUIS CHARLIE placard. It was a representation of the prophet Mohammud and therefore (in the Guardian's view) possibly 'offensive' to those who are offended by this kind of thing. Quite why they felt obliged to publish the warning is a mystery. I've already blogged about the legibility of such images, but it's the end of the year and I'm in a reflective mood.
|© Charlie Hebdo 2015|
As far as I'm aware no other British newspaper was prepared to show the image of the cover, although they all reported its existence. That Guardian warning is pusillanimous, and it might just as well be applied to anything in the media likely to cause offence. Warning: this programme contains boorish, pampered, taxpayer-funded racist wankers driving flash cars and flourishing their leaden wit, which some may find offensive' might appear on screen before transmissions of 'Top Gear', for instance.
I've had it with all this pussy-footing around the possibility of giving offence to some hypothetical audience. These days one routinely sees 'WARNING: GRAPHIC FOOTAGE' on newspaper websites which are eager to show us blood, corpses, tumours or bizarre medical conditions. Such warnings have the same moral clout and ethical content as a clip joint hustler urging punters to step inside.
Some things are, to be sure, objectively offensive. Other things merely offend. The legal term about the views of 'a reasonable person' being central to any judgement when it comes to (say) pornography in the Lady Chatterly trial applies here. Anyone offended by an innocuous cartoon representing the Prophet, or come to that by a novel such as The Satanic Verses, is not by any stretch of the imagination 'a reasonable person' in the context of our liberal democracy, so their views, while not entirely without value of course, cannot be the basis on which to draft public policy. There are people - of all races and religions - offended by feminism, freedom of speech, civil partnerships, equal rights and all the other attributes of a liberal democracy. As has been said endlessly over the past year, the selfsame freedoms that allow British subjects to worship as they please must necessarily allow other British subjects to mock those beliefs. There is a growing intolerance of tolerance.
As it happens I am offended, deeply offended, by many of the beliefs embraced by Catholics and Jews and Protestants and Muslims and other religious practitioners. Their world views are not the same as mine but my taking offence at their convictions and practices doesn't translate into murderous revenge for some actual or imaginary slight because I'm a good person. What I hate to see is a nervous pre-emptive apology such as the one proffered by the Guardian. Journalism can afford to be principled and even courageous under threat.