Written by Student Rights on 10 February 2014 at 4pm

Student Voice: Publish and be Damned

Abhishek Phadnis, President of the London School of Economics Atheist, Secularist, Humanist & Ex-Muslim Society writes on the cowardice of a media which censored the Jesus and Mo cartoons. All views are his own and do not necessarily represent Student Rights...  

The Danish scholar Jytte Klausen’s book on the Danish cartoons affair, ‘The Cartoons that Shook the World’, has no illustrations and two forewords to explain why this is so. The first, by Ms Klausen’s publishers Yale University Press, admits thatinclusion of the cartoons would complement the book’s text with a convenient visual reference for the reader”.

However, it then whimpers that “the original publication of the cartoons … was an excuse for violent incidents worldwide” and that since republication of the cartoons … ran a serious risk of instigating violence, a book about cartoons would feature none. The second foreword by Ms. Klausen herself ruefully agrees.

Yale University was the alma mater of that great American hero Nathan Hale, whose courage in the face of imminent death when caught behind enemy lines was immortalised in ‘The Ballad of Nathan Hale’:

Thou pale king of terrors, thou life's gloomy foe, Go frighten the slave; go frighten the slave;

Tell tyrants, to you their allegiance they owe. No fears for the brave; no fears for the brave.

In publishing Ms Klausen’s book without the vital illustrations the bureaucrats of Yale were proved unworthy of that mantle, but they at least had the courage to admit they were scared. Those of us who have followed the British news media’s coverage of the Jesus & Mo affair this past fortnight have been denied even that.

To recap, a Muslim man said on a personal webpage that he was not offended by a cartoon, printed on the t-shirts of two students who had been threatened with ejection from a university’s premises for wearing them. For his trouble, this man received death-threatsfrom his own community and nearly lost his job, all because some members of that community opposed his right to do this. Despite this, the British media would have you believe that absolutely none of this justifies their showing you the cartoon in question.

Leading the case for the defence was the Editor of Newsnight, Ian Katz. In a burst of apologia on Twitter Mr Katz argued that he had decided against displaying the cartoon because there was no journalistic reason to use it when description of it perfectly adequate to understand story.

Channel 4 News, which chose to cover Mo with a large black egg, sang from roughly the same hymn-sheet, arguing thatthe senior editorial team decided that the showing of the entire illustration … was not integral to the story”. Given that the ‘entire illustration’ was the story this tells us only that Channel 4’s ‘senior editorial team’ would rather be known as obtuse than invertebrate, and merits no further rebuttal.

Channel 4’s effort was a relative, if negligible, improvement on that of the BBC, claiming that where we consider the likelihood of significant offence to our audience, we will attempt to mitigate against that. However, while the frequent and unnecessary coverage of Anjem Choudhary’s Al-Muhajiroun alone undermines that notion, I invite you to cast your mind further back to the reportage of various spasms of Islamist outrage, including that over ‘The Satanic Verses’ and the Danish cartoons.

I cannot recall a single violent protest that was not covered in the media with lurid images of burning effigies and books alongside bloodcurdling protest banners with slogans such as “Behead those who insult Islam” or  “Whoever insults a prophet kill him”.

I think I speak for most liberals (and I am on surer footing in making this claim than the equivalent boasts of most self-appointed ‘community leaders’) when I say that I am viscerally offended by photographs of these protests.

While Salman Rushdie may stoically quip that a book burned is a book sold, as a lover of the printed word, I feel deep anguish on seeing charred copies of ‘The Satanic Verses’ littering the streets. I do not however expect newspaper articles and television reports to be excised of book-burnings and baying anti-blasphemy mobs, and would be rightly laughed out of the office of any editor to whom I suggested this.

Nor does this principle see wider application to other religious communities, and rightly so. Retrospectives of Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian (broadcast on Channel 4 in 2007) are regularly marked by adoring stills from the film’s funniest scenes, while montages from the raucously blasphemous Jerry Springer: The Opera, broadcast on BBC Two, were featured without compunction in every mainstream publication at the time.

Similarly, almost every British newspaper published a photograph of the artwork ‘Piss Christ’, which depicts a crucifix submerged hazily in a jar of artist, Andres Serrano’s urine. Seeing that photograph provides absolutely no information above that which can be gained from the description just provided, but then of course there is more to art than the caption.

This suggests that the British media’s concern for Muslim sensibilities is the exception not the norm. A journalist justified this to me privately, arguing that the press ought not to publish anything overtly hurtful to minorities unless there was an important public interest justification, a decent and well-meaning consideration that is wasted on those who greet a stick-figure cartoon saying “How ya doin’?” with death-threats and demands for resignation.

By way of comparison, every major British newspaper published a photograph of Nicholas Anelka's ‘quennelle’, which, unlike the offending cartoons was objectively offensive to a minority. Newsnight actually provided a lingering close-up in slow-motion, despite the situation being tailor-made for Ian Katz’s ludicrous suggestion that descriptions should substitute offensive illustrations.

Moreover, the purported concern for minority welfare is at odds with the media’s indifference to the minority within Islam that is trying to reform its orthodoxy’s disgraceful attitude to blasphemy; a minority that is gravely endangered and in need of friends.

Theirs is a spirited rear-guard against an immense and malignant foe, namely Islamism and the loudmouths who have hijackedIslam as Maajid Nawaz puts it. This creed and its supporters may be a religious minority within our borders, but is globally a power of untold wealth and influence with a wretched record on freedom of expression, and every intention of exporting this record.

Since 1988 it has suborned the murder of foreign cartoonists, translators, artists, publishers and filmmakers who have offended its sensibilities, and has blighted the life and career of  one of our most gifted contemporary novelists. Its blasphemy code has been visited upon Western universities, publishers, magazines, museums, art galleries, television productions, operas, independent cartoonists, artists and filmmakers,and even Wikipedia, and it has sought to sabotage the economies and vandalise the diplomatic missions of democracies that refuse to implement that code.

In more recent years it has polished and organised itself for the task of policing our opinions of it, with the institution of the Islamophobia Observatory in Mecca in 2005 formed to challenge “insulting, offensive and contemptuous” depictions of Mohammed that “incite unrest in society”.

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has taken it upon itself to exploit diplomatic channels and complaints to the United Nations to coerce democracies into condemning anti-Islamic expression, something which dovetails neatly with its decade-long callfor a UN resolution criminalising blasphemy. It is a theocratic juggernaut that must be stopped before it overwhelms us, and Maajid Nawaz and other liberal Muslims are performing this thankless task, for which they deserve our support, respect and thanks.

Given this Islamist assault on our freedom of expression you would expect the British press, which clamoured its ‘independence’ and ‘raucousness’ to anyone who cared to listen circa Leveson, to be our first line of defence. There is instead a cartel of deafening silence.

Hand-wringing left-liberal publications, normally awash with pontification on ‘Islamophobia’ think nothing of implicitly condoning the scurrilous assumption that every Muslim is an oversensitive crank with no sense of humour. The populist outlets that adorn our newsstands with bigoted screeds like“Now Muslims Demand: GIVE US FULL SHARIA LAW” are themselves unwilling to defy the impingement of a blasphemy code on public life.

Those in the media who resent being conscripted into this fight would do well to remember that free expression is the oxygen of the journalistic trade, and any attempt to curtail it through theocratic bullying takes an axe to the whole structure of freedoms that sustain the media. There would be no Channel 4, Independent, Guardian, or Daily Mail, without free expression.

Instead, the editors of every mainstream news outlet have bought into the convenient fiction that censoring the cartoons is the neutral position. It is not. It is perhaps unique to free-speech issues that those who report on them become part of the story themselves, their task being to tell their audience what it is that someone else is being restrained from saying. To censor the cartoons is to side with those who claim they are offensive. To show them is in fact, the neutral position, in that it can be held without implying support for either side.

It seems then that some outlets labour under the delusion that abstaining from publishing the cartoons will protect the sensibilities of ‘Muslims’. It won't, because, as Maajid Nawaz reminds us, there is no one Islam. Particularly given the generational flux within the Muslim community, any decision the media takes in this matter upsets either the reformists straining for greater freedom or the reactionaries bent on denying them it.

It baffles me, then, to see that the media repeatedly chooses to offer succour to those who scorn most fervently the mores of our shared society and the freedoms that sustain the liberty of the press.

It defers, not to Muslims like Nawaz who represent the finest synthesis of a liberal British Islam, but to professional victims and grievance-peddlers like Mohammed Shafiq, who strive to be visibly and vocally parochial. Every press article or television news report that censors Jesus & Mo thus does a greater disservice to the ‘Muslim community’ than the cartoon could, by condemning Muslims to be defined by the worst among them.

This charade must end here. Those of us who have followed the media’s refusal to print any illustration of Mohammed over the past decade will recall being fobbed off with soothing explanations that the climate is unsuitable, the editorial justification not strong enough, or the content too crude, to publish the images in question.

Nine years after the Danish cartoons furore, the Goldilocks moment of this piece is upon us. An utterly innocuous illustration of Mohammed is at the heart of a major news story, at a time when the right to depict it is in question and a nascent school of Islamic thought is defying crude reactionary opposition in urging the media to show the cartoon. If these illustrations are not shown now, they never will be.

The Islamist propensity to take violent offence should be seen as the religious equivalent of a child’s tantrum, not an insuperable law for which every allowance must always be made. It can and must be opposed, and if the media won't support those undertaking this thankless task, the least it can do is admit it’s fear and stop getting in the way.

A longer version of this article was first published by the National Secular Society and can be found here...