Friday, February 03, 2006

Leader: Cartoons and their context

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Leader: Cartoons and their context: "The cartoons, which are of very mixed quality (and which many newspapers would reject on those grounds alone), offend and provoke. But that is what cartoons do, whether they are good or bad. The right to freedom of speech which allows newspapers to publish such provocative cartoons has been hard won, is inextricably essential to liberty, must be robustly defended and has sometimes to be controversially asserted. If free speech is to be meaningful, moreover, the right to it cannot shirk from embracing views that a majority - or a minority - finds distasteful, even on occasions bitterly so. All those considerations point towards a case for wider publication of cartoons which, even though offensive and provocative, say something about uncomfortable issues that are central to the modern world and have triggered an anguished debate in Europe and elsewhere.

But that is not the end of the matter. There are limits and boundaries - of taste, law, convention, principle or judgment. All these constraints matter and cannot be automatically overriden by invoking the larger principle. In any case, the right to publish does not imply any obligation to do so. Adults are entitled to make up their own minds about what they individually want to view or read, which is why we are publishing details of the internet links to the cartoons in the newspaper and on our website. But newspapers are not obliged to republish offensive material merely because it is controversial. It would not be appropriate, for instance, to publish an anti-semitic cartoon of the sort that was commonplace in Nazi Germany. Nor would we publish one which depicted black people in the way a Victorian caricature might have done. Every newspaper in the country regularly carries stories about child pornography, yet none has yet reproduced examples of such pornography as part of their coverage. Few people would argue that it is essential to an understanding of the issues that they should do so.

Yesterday's acquittal of two British National party officials on race hatred charges for attacking Islam - and the triumphalist scenes as the two freed men emerged from court - are part of the context that must be weighed in asserting any right to publish cartoons that offend Muslims. So too is the political situation in Denmark itself, where the cartoons were first published, and where a large and strongly anti-immigrant party provides part of the parliamentary coalition supporting Denmark's centre-right government. What is the message that is being sent, both in the BNP acquittal context and in the Danish context, by insisting on publishing such images? Those questions cannot be ducked - and nor can the answers."

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