Je suis Charlie indeed. This is the problem with placards — there is rarely enough room to fit in the caveats, the qualifying clauses and the necessary evasions. I suppose you could write them on the back of the placard, one after the other, in biro. Or write in brackets and in much smaller letters, directly below ‘Je suis Charlie’: ‘Jusqu’a un certain point, Lord Copper.’ Then you can pop your biro into your lapel as a moving symbol of freedom of speech.
Only a few of the British mainstream national newspapers felt it appropriate to reproduce the front cover of the latest, post-murder, edition of Charlie Hebdo, which shows the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH, natch) saying: all is forgiven. Nobody else was quite Charlie, although BBC Newsnight held up the front page very, very briefly, as if it were on fire. Credit to them at least for that.
Of course, our MPs had their pens out as well, waving them around in the chamber in a show of solidarity. Their number will have included plenty who voted in favour of Section 5 of the Public Order Act, and particularly the clause that prohibits people from saying stuff to which other people might possibly take offence. ‘Using threatening, abusive or insulting words to cause alarm and distress’ was the original wording of this charter to protect the perpetually outraged; the word ‘insulting’ has since been removed, after a long campaign from, among others, the excellent Conservative MP David Davis. But the rest of it’s still there, a restriction on freedom of speech primarily to protect the sensibilities of people who feel that they have a human right not to be offended and enjoy ringing the police any time that they are.
This strikes me as a little hypocritical of our noble members, a point made with some force by the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who said: ‘The irony appears to be lost on some politicians who say in one breath that they will defend freedom of expression and then in the next advocate a huge encroachment on the freedom of all British citizens.’
Sure, Nick. But the irony seems to be lost on you, too. There were few politicians more delighted to embrace Lord Leveson’s draconian restriction on press freedom and, therefore, freedom of speech. But then it wouldn’t surprise me too much if his lordship was also proudly wearing a pen in his lapel. Hell, right at this moment Steve Coogan and Hugh Grant have probably got pens in their lapels. Has the BBC broadcaster Andrew Marr got a pen in his lapel? Did he have one in his lapel when he took out a super-injunction to stop the press reporting details of his private life which, in the manner of Mohammed (PBUH again, natch), he thought should not be viewed by mortal eyes?
Remember too that it is illegal in this country to use footage of our politicians in Parliament for satirical or humorous purposes, even if unintentionally they provide the humour and satire all by themselves. In this way our elected members have elevated themselves above the fray and almost to the position of Mohammed (PBUH again, and again, fivefold).
The journalist Brendan O’Neill of Spiked wrote a superb little vignette of what would have happened if Charlie Hebdo had been published in this country. He meant it as satire, but frankly it was all a little too close for comfort: he imagined the magazine subjected to a furious Twitter campaign, liberals launching a Change.org petition against its vile Islamophobia, supermarkets refusing to stock it, having first displayed it only in a black plastic bag to avoid offending Muslim customers. And the publication eventually being hounded out of business. The only thing missing from Brendan’s imagined account was the arrival, at some stage, of the Old Bill, investigating the editor and the cartoonists for inciting religious or racial hatred.
Meanwhile, as the appalling events in France unfolded, a British man exercised his right to freedom of speech. The Ukip leader Nigel Farage suggested that a dubious policy of multiculturalism, plus unrestrained immigration, might in some way have contributed to the sort of attack we saw in Paris last week and have seen before — and will undoubtedly see again, some time quite soon — in the UK.
The response from the three main party leaders was immediate and unanimous. Let me try to paraphrase it for you here: ‘I am deeply disappointed that Mr Farage sought to make political capital out of this tragedy. Now is not the time to make salient and virtually incontestable observations on the causes of the misery inflicted upon us all. Now is the time to spout vapid, platitudinous drivel about our heavily qualified commitment to freedom of speech and thus our partial and temporary solidarity with that ghastly magazine in France.’
Farage was roundly condemned, as he usually is. But again, he was right — as he usually is on such matters. And why is now not the time to consider the policies which have brought us all, in Europe, to this somewhat disagreeable position? I would have thought that ‘now’ was just about the best time imaginable. We have a degree of focus right now, no? Our minds are concentrated.
But it is easier, I suppose, to wallow in the emotive, if mindless, outpouring of grief and confected grief and to issue a string of canards, the same canards that are spewed out every time something like this happens. This is nothing to do with Islam! (Er, yes it is.) The overwhelming majority of Muslims believe in freedom of speech just like the rest of us. (Are you having a laugh?) Let’s all unite and march onward into a bright new dawn, holding hands and with our pens in our lapels and carrying those placards: Je suis Charlie.