Hard News by Russell Brown

Makes Waitangi look innocuous, doesn't it?

How did a bunch of mostly crappy cartoons published five months ago in an undistinguished newspaper with a smaller circulation that the New Zealand Herald come to this? And does it get better or worse now?

Well, let's start with the most obvious point: freedom of speech encompasses not only the right to offend, but the right to express offence. If a Muslim finds the cartoons offensive and doesn't like seeing them published repeatedly, it is redundant to simply inform him or her that it's-free-speech-dammit-get-with-the-programme.

Because people express offence at newspaper cartoons and other forms of culture all the time. Last year, Sir Humphrey's regular AL reached for the word "horrific" twice in three sentences to describe a Ross Kettle cartoon that, um, depicted Rodney Hide as a barnyard animal. ("If Hide was Jewish, then of course such a horrific cartoon would never have been published. But it's okay if the politician is a white leader of a centre-right party.") You and I - and in all likelihood Rodney - might think eh? But AL has every right to take such exaggerated offence, even if it seems a bit daft.

In the US, last week, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (an arm of the state, technically) wrote an angry letter to the Washington Post to protest the publication of this cartoon. Michele Malkin might declare that: "In civilized societies, if you are offended by a cartoon, you do not burn flags, take up guns and raid buildings, chant death to your opponents, or threaten suicide bombings. You write a letter to the editor." But plenty of other pajamahadeen are actively seeking the sacking of the WaPo's cartoonist because they didn't like what he had to say. It would be a little ironic if they got their wish - or even an apology - in the present circumstances.

And then, of course, there is the matter of Malcolm Evans, who drew these cartoons, which led to him parting company with the New Zealand Herald. There are some obvious differences between Evans and the Danish case. Evans was dumped because he wouldn't accept editorial direction of his work; in the Danish case, the editors commissioned and defended the work. But, in his most controversial cartoon (the third one on this page), Evans used religious symbolism in pursuit of a political point: ie, exactly what the Danish cartoonists claimed to be doing. Evans' work would seem to have more of a point.

In his case, the Israeli ambassador sought a meeting with the Herald's editor and apparently obtained satisfaction. And Tom Paine of the nutter-friendly Silent Running blog angrily declared Brian Edwards, who commented on the Evans case, to be "anti-semitic", applauded Evans' dumping and raved that: "Malcolm Evans was given the boot because he wouldn't stop drawing racist cartoons. If he's drawn cartoons about Maori even one tenth as offensive as his anti-Jewish ones, he wouldn't just be out of a job right now, he'd be dead!"

Ironically, the Silent Running mob is presently angrily ranting in support of the Danish cartoons and Mr Paine has posted a primitive anti-Muslim cartoon so vile that I won't even link to it. "Hypocrite" hardly seems a strong enough word, but "creep" seems to fit well enough.

Anyway, Radio New Zealand has transferred the Mediawatch archives over to its own site, and in the Mediawatch Blog in successive weeks, I looked at other cartoon controversies at the time, including The Boondocks being dropped by major newspapers in response to protests (there wasn't a whole lot of free-speech crusading on display there), and noted David Cohen's crisply-argued caution against sympathy for Evans. There was also an interview with Evans that went to air.

Yes, I've seen Bloody Mary, the episode of South Park that must give great offence to many Catholics. I'm also aware that the same episode mysteriously disappeared from Comedy Central's re-run schedule; and that there is actually a difference between Comedy Central and a national newspaper. Newspapers enjoy a certain status by virtue of conducting themselves with at least a hint of gravitas.

Let us now move on to The Book of Daniel, an NBC comedy-drama about a quirky Episcopalian priest. It has been cancelled after a few episodes in the US. It may have been cancelled partly or even wholly on the grounds of not being very good, but before it even screened it was subject to a substantial campaign by the American Family Association and others, directed at advertisers and affiliate stations, motivated in part by the programme's depiction of Jesus.

By the time the programme was yanked, all but one sponsor had pulled out and 12 affiliates had dropped it. No, the AFA's protest didn't involve violence - but neither did the Danish protest at the same juncture. It might be said that the most significant difference between the two protests at that juncture was the prompt success of the Christian one.

But here's where I part company with No Right Turn. I do not think that marching the public street with signs threatening to behead or otherwise murder your fellow citizens, promising "Europe's 9/11" or a "new Holocaust" constitutes free speech, no matter what offence has been taken. The British police told reporters that they were photographing those involved. I would hope that they were also following them home and keeping them under surveillance henceforth. You lose a certain right to privacy when you incite the murder of those around you.

This actually brings us to the place where many non-Western Muslims have failed to grasp our cultural understanding of freedom of speech. It's not just the right to publish, but - in the absence of any duly enacted law (and such laws are themselves problematic) - to remain unmolested by the state for doing so. That's non-negotiable.

The Guardian's thoughtful editorial notes the call by Prince Nayef, the Saudi interior minister, for the Vatican to halt publication of the cartoons, "anachronistically assuming a role in European secular life for a supranational religious authority." If the elite can be so pathetically disconnected from modernity, is it any surprise that the man in the street doesn't get it? You cannot wish collective punishment on a whole society for the independent actions of a few. And yes, that cuts both ways.

As The Observer's backgrounder notes, flames were fanned by ultra-conservative Danish imams, who hit the road armed not only with the Jyllands-Posten drawings, but unrelated cartoons showing Muhammad with the face of a pig and as a paedophile. The consequent riots have damaged the perception of all Islam more than the cartoons did.

But let us also recognise that our own Islamic community, whilst grievously offended, seems determined to make its point as part of the citizenry. Anjum Rahman sent me a thoughtful email:

I was part of the Muslim protest march in Auckland today. it was a strange experience. I hadn't expected it to be so, well not aggressive, but loud. The emotion was like a physical thing, palpitating in the air. I felt, on the one hand, an exhiliration from being part of a group of people prepared to speak (or shout) out about what we believed in, it was a powerful statement of self-identity and pride in who we are - something that we feel so little of in these times.

Yet at the same time, it was scary to be part of something so powerful. At no time was there any danger of it turning ugly - no-one had violence on their minds. but I could somehow understand how the mob in Cronulla could turn to violence, and start beating anyone they came across. It's as if you lose your own mind, and the mob develops a collective mind of its own.

I'm still not sure whether we did the right thing by marching. I'm one of those who think there are many other issues Muslims should be marching about. But I'm glad I was there, just for the experience, and I am upset that the papers here have dropped us in this mess.

I live in Hamilton, and since Friday have already had 3 incidences of people yelling abuse or making offensive gestures at me. I wish I could somehow stop each one of them and tell them this is not my doing, please don't take it out on me.

As you will be aware, two Fairfax papers, The Dominion Post and The Press have chosen to reproduce the cartoons. To be honest, I'm quite grateful to the Dom Post for doing it the way it has: reproducing the original page so the work can be seen in context, providing translations and explaining how they were commissioned in the first place. What I do object to is any sort of pissing contest which holds that a paper that decides not to reproduce the works is somehow letting the side down. Freedom also implies choice - and newspapers choose not to offer gratuitous offence to their readers all the damn time.

No British newspapers have chosen to reproduce the cartoons, and in the Sunday Times, Simon Jenkins argues that the drawings do not defend free speech, but threaten it:

In all matters of self-regulation the danger is clear. If important institutions, in this case the press, will not practise self-discipline then governments will practise it for them. Ascribing evil consequences to religious faith is a sure way of causing offence. Banning such offence is an equally sure way for a politician to curry favour with a minority and thus advance the authoritarian tendency. The present Home Office needs no such encouragement.

The Guardian rounds up the British press editorials, including this from The Sun: "The cartoons are intended to insult Muslims, and the Sun can see no justification for causing deliberate offence to our much-valued Muslim readers. The Sun believes passionately in free speech, but that does not mean we need to jump on someone else's bandwagon to prove we will not be intimidated."

There's something quite encouraging in that. The Sun sees Muslims as readers, Britons and Europeans, not as the other; a distinction that appears to have been lost on some continental editors.

I'm not sure that the Dom Post's to pompously "test the tolerance" of Islam is a particularly bold one anyway. Bold would be, say, running a cartoon depicting Jesus as a kiddy-fiddler, and defending it with an editorial. That would test some boundaries, not to mention the fitness of our blasphemy law. But, somehow, I can't see that happening. Ever.

PS: Thanks to Mike Little for the heads-up on this Media Guardian story, which reveals that Jyllands-Posten has previously refused to run cartoons lampooning Jesus. An editor told the artist (who says they were "an innocent joke, of the type that my Christian grandfather would enjoy") that: "I don't think Jyllands-Posten's readers will enjoy the drawings. As a matter of fact, I think that they will provoke an outcry. Therefore, I will not use them." Ahem.

PPS: This is not to say that I believe the answer to lie in opposing volleys of gratuitous insult. Quite the reverse. I'm put in mind of an interview I conducted last year with Itamar Marcus of Palestinian Media Watch, an Israeli-US non-governmental organisation dedicated to scrutiny of the Palestinian media. What emerged from that story was how important it was that Palestinians and Israelis desist from dehumanising characterisations of each other if they were to stand a chance of peace.

PPPS: One last observation. It has been notable how much of the debate here has focused on potential trade consequences. WellI, I don't think newspaper editors are obliged to pay heed to political warnings about the perceived national interest - we wouldn't look fondly on, say, an American editor who witheld a memo because it might cast the war in Iraq in a poor light. That shouldn't be the issue.