Amid the ongoing fallout from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s explosive Oprah interview, Charlie Hebdo seems to have done the impossible: it has united Team Queen and Team Meghan in outrage against it.
In response to Markle’s claims that she was pushed out of the royal family by racism, the fearless French satirical magazine published a front-page cartoon of the queen with her knee on Meghan’s neck. The cartoon is titled ‘Why Meghan quit the palace’, to which Markle answers in a speech bubble, ‘Because I couldn’t breathe any more’.
The depiction of the queen, complete with hairy legs and red eyes, hasn't gone down well with some monarchists. Meanwhile, those on the identitarian left found the cartoon’s evocation of George Floyd’s death distasteful. Halima Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, said it was ‘wrong on every level’. ‘This doesn’t push boundaries, make anyone laugh or challenge racism. It demeans the issues and causes offence across the board.’
Six years after Islamists gunned down 12 people at Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris (punishment for it daring to publish depictions of the Prophet Muhammad), commentators continue to display remarkable ignorance about what this magazine is and does. Many continue to parrot the disgusting libel – beloved by Islamists – that the magazine is racist and Islamophobic. The implication of which being that it kind of had it coming.
In April 2015, just a few months after the attack, dozens of writers protested PEN America’s decision to give a free-expression award to Charlie Hebdo, on the grounds the magazine ‘victimised’ minorities. In the years since, a series of cartoons and front covers – one featuring Aylan Kurdi, another depicting the Barcelona terror attack – have sparked new waves of outrage. And so it is again with Megxit.
But not for the first time, the criticisms make no sense whatsoever. The knee-on-the-neck cartoon appears to mock everyone involved, from the fusty old monarchy to the Duchess of Sussex, who has been elevated to the status of saintly victim, and anti-racist hero, despite living a life of remarkable privilege.
Such misunderstandings are partly down to plain ignorance among Anglophone commentators. Even a cursory bit of Googling would disabuse you of the notion that Charlie Hebdo – a left-wing, anti-racist magazine, and an equal-opportunities offender – is some kind neo-Nazi Beano. But the periodic scandals over Charlie Hebdo reveal how censorious and literal-minded many liberals have become.
As Robert McLiam Wilson, a Northern Irish writer who works for Charlie Hebdo, has pointed out the magazine sometimes uses racially charged imagery to make an anti-racist point. Christiane Taubira, former French justice minister, was depicted as a monkey on one cover – but only as a satire of the racist depictions of her by the far-right. Taubira clearly got the point – she gave a eulogy at one of the murdered cartoonists’ funerals.
But in the UK and the US our attachment to free speech has been getting weaker as our propensity for taking offence at things has become almost heroic. The New York Times recently sacked a decorated reporter for using the n-word during a private discussion about racist speech. There was a similar scandal at the BBC last year over the decision to repeat a racist slur in a news report about a racist attack, even though the journalist involved had the full support of the victims’ family.
The reaction to Charlie Hebdo’s latest front cover – which is hardly its most provocative – suggests many commentators are just taking offence first and working out the reasons why later. In the process they continue to condemn a courageous magazine whose journalists paid the ultimate price for holding the line on free expression. It is not Charlie Hebdo who should be ashamed here.