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Charlie Hebdo: The PCO’s point of view

January 8, 2015 in Comment

A PCO Committee-sanctioned article, composed in the immediate aftermath of yesterday’s murders of Charlie Hebdo journalists and other bystanders yesterday:

It is a cartoonist’s blessing and curse to be at the point of pen and pain when matters of free speech and offence come to town.

The murders at the the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris are as grotesque an act of zealotry that any group can carry out.

But there is, in our view, no reason for society in general, or cartoonists in particular, to beat themselves up unnecessarily about the acts of these criminals.

There was no obvious change in the long-term behaviour of cartoonists in Europe after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published its Prophet Muhammad cartoons in 2006. Despite the horror of what has happened in Paris today, we do not think this will or should change.

This is because, despite its healthy subversive streak, the drawing of opinion cartoons has always operated under the laws of the land  – and specifically under the hand of the editors who guard the publications for which we work.

All cartoonists who publish in print work under the system of checks and balances that is the editor. Control in our niche of journalism is just the same as written or broadcast journalism. Any cartoonists can tell that you that the experience of negotiation with an editor can be as blunt as a “No” or as joyful as “Publish and be damned”.

Charlie Hebdo knew all this when they republished the Muhammad cartoons. And in law, in France, they were able to publish just as they did.

In doing so, they deliberately challenged a convention in European and US publishing after the Danish controversy that the less that was said, the sooner all would be mended. They also knew that their act or republication would be global in a way that it wasn’t when Jyllands-Posten published the original work of the 12 freelance cartoonists more than eight years ago.

When provocations like this are easily read and shared – liked and retweeted across the globe – you have a vehicle for stoking a controversy of unparalleled power.

We are as fond of the Voltaire quote about defending the right to offend as the next cartoonists’ organisation, and there was and is a strong case to be made for the publication of the Danish cartoons as a statement or expression of free speech. But it did also potentially antagonise many millions of Muslims and it certainly highlighted Charlie Hebdo as a soft target. The publishers have been horribly caught out by their own boldness, at a great and bloody cost.

Distribution of information across the globe has killed comfortable assumptions and the cosy clichés of shared experience that allow the consequence-free poking of fun at subjects about which people can care deeply.

Every image matters when you have a global audience. The internet, that great invention of humanity, is very easily put to a purpose that does not aid humans.

Unmediated distribution of images in social media has been accompanied by the spread of tools to manipulate and edit other people’s photographs and cartoons. This has opened up a Pandora’s box of opportunity for misunderstanding, theft, outrage and offence – again, on a global scale.

At this awful moment we would like to send our deepest condolences and best wishes to all our colleagues in France.

In spite of all today’s horror, we know we shall shortly be raising a merrier hell with them all, making well-timed drawings about the lives we all lead in one shared and ever more connected world.

En avant!
The Professional Cartoonists’ Organisation represents the best of British cartoonists. Its website can be found at www.procartooninsts.org.