Over the coming hours and days there will be a lot of talk – largely by anonymous Twitter warriors – about the need to express ‘solidarity’ with Charlie Hebdo. Many others will say how important it is to ensure that ‘the terrorists and fundamentalists don’t win.’
But the terrorists and fundamentalists are winning and for the moment it looks like they will keep winning. Because even before today Charlie Hebdo already stood alone. In the wake of the 2005 Danish cartoons affair no other major newspaper or magazine in Europe was willing to keep running depictions of Islam’s founder. Of course they said they didn’t publish, or republish, because they didn’t want to cause offence, or because they thought the (wholly innocuous) depictions were wilfully ‘provocative’ and the like. And of course Jyllands Posten is a conservative, ‘right-wing’ newspaper.
But they will say the same thing now. And the left-wing Charlie Hebdo will be abandoned now even more than the right-wing Jyllands Posten was back then. People will come up with various excuses, but in truth they won’t publish because they are afraid. The remaining staff of Charlie Hebdo could hardly be more alone.
There is only one way in which this couldn’t remain the case: if tomorrow, or some day this week every newspaper and magazine in Europe, the front-page of the BBC and Channel 4 News websites and every other major news site simultaneously published a set of Charlie Hebdo’s depictions of Mohammed among others. I put this suggestion to the BBC today during an interview and was told by the presenter that ‘in fairness’ to the BBC they had earlier retweeted Charlie Hebdo’s recent cartoon of ISIS’s leader al-Baghdadi. Which, of course, isn’t quite the same thing. Some readers may recall that during the Danish cartoon affair Channel 4 ran a live programme on freedom of speech which included a live vote as to whether or not Channel 4 should show the cartoons. The public voted that they should. And then Channel 4 unilaterally decided to ignore the public’s wishes and would not show the cartoons.
It was around the same time that Ayaan Hirsi Ali put it best. She suggested in the wake of the Danish cartoons affair that ‘we have to spread the risk.’ But the free press didn’t spread it around then. And I very much doubt that they will now. I know all the arguments. I know the fears – that someone from the typing pool or on the front desk will be the target. I’ve heard every possible argument over the years.
And that is why I can safely say that the free press will fail this latest test too. For all its historic traditions, its self back-slapping for its alleged ‘bravery’ and so on, there are only a couple of tiny outcrops of freedom. The rest of the vast, powerful, fearless, outspoken tradition that is the Western press is too intimidated to publish a single cartoon that might conveivably provoke a Muslim.
This is what it looks like to lose a freedom. Not many people will care today. But they will tomorrow, or another day in the future.