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Dave Brown's cartoon

How the British media reported what happened to Charlie Hebdo

By Marie Decreme

On Thursday, the day after the attack against Charlie Hebdo, the phenomenon had already become global. Black front pages, “I am Charlie”, the faces of Charb, Cabu, Tignous and Wolinski on the covers… The tragedy of the previous week had resonated throughout the international press. In the UK, the reaction had been immediate: emotion, indignation, tributes; the British newspapers had showed their support for France, in mourning. Then came the questions, the analysis… Let's take a look at the way the British media told the story.

Face the “barbarism”

The first headlines in the British media denounced a “war” (The Times), an “attack against freedom” (The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail). In the same vein, The Guardian condemned an “assault on democracy” on its front page, on 8 January. And the photo that kept appearing on the front covers was the picture of the wounded policeman in front of Charlie Hebdo’s offices. He is on the ground, raises his hand in surrender, and one of the terrorists points his Kalashnikov at him before shooting him in cold blood. In France, people were shocked when they saw the same picture on the front cover of Le Point. But the British dailies chose to emphasise the barbarism of the terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo.

Release of Charlie Hebdo in London on 16 January

The British press largely defended the controversial magazine that had hurt the feelings of many Muslims by publishing drawings of the prophet Muhammad. The Guardian for instance revealed that “Charlie’s team” had always mocked Christianity and “[had] never seen any reason why more deference should be shown to other faiths.” Only the Financial Times was critical, considering the attitude of the satirical newspaper “stupid”, and “senseless”; “France is the land of Voltaire, but too often editorial foolishness has prevailed at Charlie Hebdo” the editorialist Tony Barber wrote a few hours after the attack. Readers did not all respond well to this editorial line, although the Financial Times still argued that “a free press [was] worth nothing if its journalists [did] not feel free to speak up.”

Torn between the desire to support and the desire not to offend

The front page of Charlie Hebdo’s latest edition showed that in the UK, the debate to decide if the French cartoonists had gone too far was not settled. The “survivors’ issue”, released on 14 January, featured the prophet Muhammad in a cartoon on its front page. And British editors were divided once more between, on the one hand, their desire to support those who had been murdered and to promote freedom of speech, and, on the other hand, the wish not to offend the Muslim community. Some newspapers, such as the Financial Times or The Independent chose to share the front page in full.

Others were more timid, like The Guardian, which limited Charlie Hebdo’s front cover to  a reduced size, at the bottom of the page, after warning its readers with the following message: “this article contains the image of the magazine cover, which some may find offensive.” And then, finally, media such as the BBC, The Daily Telegraph, or The Daily Mail opted for blurring drawings or cropped pictures of Charlie’s cartoons, so they would not hurt the sensibility of the Muslim community by showing pictures of Muhammad.

Many dailies preferred to hand their front cover to cartoonists; a way to show that this very particular kind of journalism can and has to get back on its feet immediately - some cartoonists sought to make a statement, like the middle finger armed with a quill Dave Brown painted for The Independent.

What aftermath of the attacks?

Beyond the emotion, last weekend newspapers were already analysing the causes of the attacks, the flaws in terms of security in particular. On 10 January, the BBC was questioning on its website; “Charlie Hebdo attack: A French intelligence failure?”, before adding; “the suspects were known not just to French but also to other European and American authorities.”

The Economist's front page on 10 January

As in France, the newspapers talked of the dangers of over-reacting and cautioned on the need for a measured  response to the Islamist attacks. The Daily Telegraph evoked the risks of the attacks’ aftermath, mentioning, in this context, Michel Houellebecq’s novel in which the French author imagines a Muslim president introducing the sharia in France. “Such paranoia can easily be stoked by the murders in Paris. It needs to be resisted, otherwise the terrorists really will have won” the daily wrote.

As a backdrop, the coverage of the attacks by the English media was punctuated by the debates on the limits of freedom of speech. On that matter, the cartoonist Martin Rowson said, on Channel 4, that Charlie Hebdo’s drawings were “stemming from a completely different tradition than ours”; there is indeed, on one hand, the French republican model, and, on the other hand, Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism. David Cameron recently reaffirmed his attachment to freedom of speech but there are concerns that the publication of Charlie’s cartoons might offend the Muslim community. Perhaps the British believe in the right to offend but prefer not to practice it?


10/01/2016 - Deanejay said :

True, but their first reports and editorial was very ambivilent about supporting CH's actions in publishing the cartoons in the first place. It was a muted and fearful support at best. The Guardian was somewhat critical of CH in its editorial in those early days.

20/01/2015 - hs.martin said :

The Guardian was not so timid. It published some of the cartoons. It organised an immediate public debate on the whole issue and the panel included the former editor of Le Monde. It published a couple of hard hitting cartoons. And it donated 100,000 pounds to help Charle Hebdo publish its next edition. It has recently been running a very brave campaign based round the Snowden revelations, which it publshed in the face of threats to close the paper down and imprison ts editor. It would be hard to make a case against it, of all papers, of not supporting freedom of speech, information and civil liberties in general.


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