THE BLOG

What Has Charlie Really Done for Free Speech?

15/01/2015 14:06 GMT | Updated 16/03/2015 09:59 GMT

I'm someone who likes to challenge received opinion and question the unquestioned. So I know from bitter experience that you can be only a few ill chosen words away from the clenched teeth and unfettered opprobrium of someone with an axe to grind.

As we saw in Paris last week, sometimes those axes can be dangerous, especially when they're backed up with Kalashnikovs and the righteous indignation of those who believe that a few strokes of ink on a page can amount to a sleight worthy of summary execution.

In our totally connected and self affirming world, it was perhaps to be expected that those horrific events drove people to express solidarity on a global scale against such barbarous acts. And whilst it was in many ways an admirable spectacle to witness, my sceptical disquiet over all things involving slogans and the gratuitous appearance of politicians en masse left me with little desire to make a proper Charlie of myself.

Indeed, after seeing some recent examples of the output of the magazine in question, I came to the inescapable conclusion that I'm really nothing like Charlie, and no amount of senseless slaughter would prompt me to say I was.

I must admit I've never been an avid reader of Charlie Hebdo. Apart from the fact that I only had the vaguest prior knowledge of their existence, my inability to process the French language would probably have precluded any hope that I might ever be a regular subscriber.

But having trawled the internet for some of their recent more graphical work, I have to admit to an uneasy feeling that we might all be barking up a particularly thorny tree here.

Images of hook nosed Arabs, bullet ridden Korans and slogans comparing said book to human excreta, kind of took the edge off my support. To me it smacked of racist propaganda from another age. Perhaps something was lost in the translation, but it didn't exactly bring Swift to mind.

Not that I'm saying any of this output earned anyone a death sentence. But I do feel that conflating such imagery with a treatise on free speech might be doing that worthy ideal a disservice.

The pitch of course is that these murderous acts were an affront to our inalienable right to free expression. And so they were. But when 40 or so world leaders have the mendacity to get up on their hind legs and swear fealty to such a concept, whilst knowing full well that they support nothing of the kind in their own fiefdoms, I find it hard to miss the smell of baloney.

Yes, free expression is a right. One that's enshrined in the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights no less. But as has already been pointed out by more learned people than me, it's a right that comes with many caveats. Reading the relevant clause, it's hard to think of a circumstance where any state couldn't claim that one or other qualification allowed them full impunity to get the water board out. Defining free speech is a slippery concept, as I think the days since the Paris shootings have shown.

But beyond that, I believe there's an implicit responsibility to ensure our free expressions don't stray unnecessarily into free racism or wilful oppression. It's a responsibility to know where the line is and to not cross it without really questioning our motivation for doing so. We all have an internal censor and sometimes we need to listen to it.

We shouldn't see that as a restriction of free speech, but rather as the nurturing of it as a guttering flame that is demonstrably easy to snuff out when you stir up a whirlwind.

Publications like Charlie Hebdo and certain publicity hungry public figures deliberately test the endurance of that flame. Perhaps for good reasons, but also in some cases as part of cult of notoriety. Something that in some modern media circles, and for some individuals, seems to be a cipher for celebrity. Then it becomes a lazy form of expression, rather than one that pushes back the envelope in any meaningful way. Especially if we're talking about an envelope of cash.

I'm not necessarily worried about offending someone, or even their imaginary friend. That's a fact of life. But I am concerned about the likely consequences of deliberately and pointedly causing that offence on a repeated basis and in a rather clumsy way.

The consequences in this case, apart from senseless murder, are the provision of a platform for many of the aforementioned politicians to reignite a drive for greater control over forms of communication, such as the internet and mobile communications. All technologies that have done a fair bit to increase free speech, widen discourse and lead to significant political change.

Others have seen it as a basis for stoking up an even greater ferment of racial, religious and ideological hatred amongst opposing factions. Most notably amongst Muslims and Jews, who if we're to believe the rhetoric, are currently cowering under their beds waiting for the helicopter gunships to come and sweep them off to the homeland.

Meanwhile the rest of us are left to wonder if there will be another attack as 5 million copies of the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo enter circulation bearing an image that, whilst relatively benign, is likely to cause more disquiet amongst Muslim communities.

The other sad indictment of these events has been a virtual news blackout on anything that doesn't involve placard waving throngs in city squares. Not even the story of a 10 year old girl blown up along with several others by equally hateful and misguided extremists in Nigeria on the day after the Paris massacre.

On the same day another mass murder went virtually unreported on mainstream media. The killing of so many people by Boko Haram , again in Nigeria, that they were initially unable to count the number of dead - later found to exceed 2000. Yet at the same time we had an almost minute by minute body count of those joining the throng in the Place de la Republique.

So while I mourn the loss of some talented journalists and all those killed during the attack and afterwards, I don't think I'll be ascribing much in the way of positive cultural enrichment to the work of Charlie Hebdo. In fact I'm having a hard time seeing how their work and the subsequent campaign does anything to enrich the principles of free speech.

For a perfect example of this, we only need to examine the abuse heaped on the head of Tim Willcox, the BBC reporter who, with an admittedly mistimed question at the Paris rally, kicked off a tirade of abuse on social media when he had linked the actions of Islamic extremists to those of Israeli Jews in Palestine.

His words have since been subjected to a forensic semantic dissection in order to prove an anti-Semitic agenda. Something which to me echoes the efforts of Muslims to find offence in what most other people would regard as harmless cartoons.

Regardless of the merits of his comment, Willcox had the perfect right to make it. Just as others had the perfect right to disagree with him. Except there was only one person who's livelihood was being threatened as a result.

Perhaps a demonstration that, regardless of claims to the contrary, we are not all Charlie, there are boundaries to free speech, and it's easy is to get hurt if you trip over them.