Lyndon Hood - Pontificating Moralist, Lower Hutt

Monday, February 06, 2006

Periodically I draft out a post about some issue of the moment then go off and have a life or whatever for a while - by the time I come back it's too late. Looks like this cartoon thing isn't going away though.

I wanted to concentrate on the New Zealand side, because I may have some kind of handle on it. The rest of the world is clearly insane, and the post is too long anyway. It's not as if Russell is not there for you.

Much of my opinion could be summarised as 'go the Herald', but I do have something to add, unless it's come up in the blogs I haven't been reading over the weekend. That right! I didn't read your blog! Anyway, skip to the end if that's all you're interested in.

[For the record, the note about Hard News was added shortly after posting. SO I hadn't read your blog either, Brown. It also transpires I don't really have anything to add. The post, however, remains.]

It is about freedom of speech. Of course it is. People have a right to say, and newspapers to publish, whatever they want, without fear of state censure, international sanctions, rioting or death threats. Citizens of some states are even lucky enough to have this right enshrined to some extent in law, which is highly beneficial for the state concerned.

This of course includes the right to be offensive, even in the highest degree - otherwise there is no protection at all. Offensive speech is the only kind anyone tries to ban.

We may not be able to do anything about the way other states treat their citizens but we cannot, indeed, back down on this on our own homeboy turf.

Okay? Good.

It's also about editorial ethics.

Just because people should be allowed to publish highly offensive images does not oblige you to republish them.

Particularly when there's more of a sense that you're republishing not for informational purposes (like the unfortunate editor who lost his job in Lebanon) but because you can - in fact, publishing something simply because its publication made people really, really, mad - this is not, to my mind, good citizenship.

The London Times Diplomatic editor (from memory): "Publishing something that causes a huge row is unfortunate. Publishing something after it's caused a huge row is like poking someone in the eye with a stick ..."

Because of fundamental freedoms alluded to above, newspapers only have to - should only have to - answer only to their consciences and any voluntary organisations they belong to. And to their readers, who can often provide more of an immediate incentive for good behaviour.

And possibly the God of choice. But as far as I've noticed the burning death that rained down from the sky on various media organisations in the last decade or so did not come direct from any deity.

Anyway, when various Government representatives coem out against the republishing of the cartoons - and we do, for example, have hostage issues where the respect New Zealand might have for Islam is relevant - than can only express annoyance in the same way that anyone else can. Of course, when the talk about the damage in dollar terms they don't exactly sound like they're arguing a moral point.

I do have sympathy with running the cartoons as a way of indicating in the clearest terms that you will not be bullied. Or just a gesture of solidarity. But publishing something that you would not otherwise have touched with a barge poll seems an odd way to defend freedom of speech. And it's not helping.

Certain bloggers' reaction to the problem has been to keep on poking. In some cases with a sharper stick. David Farrar managed to add insult to two different kinds of blasphemy and religious libel by saying that the 'bomb' cartoon isn't all that offensive - a claim that does rather fly in the face of the empirical evidence.

But blogs individual things. They are not typically taken to reflect the zeitgeist or be the journal of record in the way newspapers are.

There have been calls (UN, RSF, IFJ) for dialogue. Which is, where both sides listen. What we have had is two contradictory - actaully antagonisitc - positions. I am of course ignoring how they got that way. And I do believe one should be able to safely mock religion. But, looking back, would you rather say you sat there and trumpeted how right you were, or that you helped clean up the mess?

The Christian world got as tolentant as it is, I suppose, through a long history of being poked in the eye with a sharp stick. Few supporters of free speech will deny that being poked is a good thing. But the poking, if I might strain this metaphor beyond breaking point, was done from the inside.

Insensitive pontification from New Zealand newspapers may well be conterproductive in the struggle to liberalise the Muslim world. Not that there is a coherent entity called the Muslim world.

The End Bit

Anyway, what started me off was the urge to supply people trumpting our own tolerance of religious dissent with a talking point. Either for or against, I'm not sure which.

Aside, that is, from the point that No Right Turn makes (with a kind of well-meaning and highly valid inevitablity): in terms of legislation and case law, one could be prosecuted for religious libel if you said the same thing about Christianity. And given that someone is being prosecuted for sedition it could happen.

Not that I don't remember the Virgin in a Condom. And apparently, not having a tele, I missed Popetown.

I also recall that slightly before my time at Otago University there was a capping show cartoon poster combining imagery from all the popular stage musicals. It included a picture of a cat nailed to a cross. Caused a bit of a stir, but that's not what I wanted to talk about either.

I actually wanted to remind everyone about Malcom Evans.

In 2003, Evans was sacked as editorial cartoonist at the Herald (the same Herald that so pointedly not publishing the Prophet series, also the same Herald that weathered the storm over publishing Thomas Fudge's defense of Joel Hayward's thesis). Depending on who you talk to he was fired either for some quite powerful cartoons about Israel that some (some Jewish groups, for example) saw as anti-Jewish, or for some procedural weirdness which was part of the same saga. Evans said the Herald tried to stop him drawing cartoons about Israel. The Herald denied this (One News Report,Mediawatch interview). Apparently Eating Media Lunch showed there was no Zionist conspiracy at work (end of this Listener article). What they found, Google has yet to tell me.

Of particular note (leading to an apology), a response to some particular legal segregation of Palestinians had a ruined wall with "APARTHEID" written on it with a Star of David for the second "A".

As it happens, he was attacking the actions of Israel using a symbol of Judaism (and of Israel - see the flag). If he had been just accusing Judaism of being a racist religion - had been entirely clear that that was what he was doing - then that would be more like the 'bomb' cartoon in the current controversy. Except a somewhat less criminal pan-religious accusation and not so very blasphemous.

One imagines, in a case like that, the consequences for the cartoonist and possibly editor that let it pass might have been more severe.

So, without actually endorsing Evan's side of the story - interesting, eh?