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

6 responses to Charlie Hebdo: The PCO’s point of view

  1. Wonderfully well put.

  2. If the PCO’s Charlie Hebdo “point of view” is indeed widely held by your members then it’s no wonder that print journalism in this country and in the US is moribund and on it’s knees. Indeed, it speaks volumes, doesn’t it,  that not a single comment has until now been posted in this response section?What a peice of mealy-mouthed, self-satisfied complacency your “point of view” represents. Lets conduct a little lesson in deconstructing it then. Firstly, why would any cartoonist, let alone society in general “beat themselves up” about the actions of cold blooded, religion-inspired murderers?”Beat themselves up?”Isn’t the word ‘worry’ what you’re really looking for here, in this particular section – or rather, the word you are avoiding? This is what you really meant, isn’t it? I paraphrase:  Look chaps [and it is mainly chaps, ins’t it], there’s no reason to worry uneccessarily about the acts of these criminals; we carried on complacently, as normal, after the Danish cartoon scare because, inspite of the subversive minority out there, we at least, the vast majority of us in this cosy club, didn’t have to change at all.Why? Well,  by virtue of the fact that we operate safely within the rules handed down by higher authority and, of course, we also hide under the protective wing of our bosses who guard the interests of the paper and sheild us from reality. We let them decide what’s controversial, what can and what can’t be said or drawn, so don’t “beat yourselves up” with self-censorship guilt, old chaps, it’s not really our responsibility since it’s out of our hands anyway.Of course, in France they knew exactly what they were doing, publishing just as they pleased. And in doing so, they deliberately challenged the status quo that we here and in the US have put such great efforts in to maintain and conform to: namely the less said that might upset anybody, the better – and the sooner we can all carry on as complacently as ever. But those Charlie’s ought to have known the consequences, now that complacent little worlds like our cosy club are more exposed, what with the internet and everything, that more people would read and see their stuff; things aint what they used to be you know, oh no, in this new global world you have to be careful not to provoke controversy because there’s a danger of reaching a lot more people. [Yes, just think of that, words and art with real power – we can’t have that]!And oh, yes, of course we can pay lip service to freedom of speach and Voltaire and all that, but don’t forget who you might antagonise. Look how they were caught out by their own actions, eh, poking fun at people “who care deeply”  (and who would that be then, murdering ideologues)? Don’t forget, with this big internet every image matters – has the potential to reach lots more people and can be used against us humans! I mean, look at all that unfiltered material out there, it’s tantamount to a democratic smorgasbord, like opening a huge can of worms.Of course our condolences and platitudes etc. and etc…. and best wishes to our comrades in France.In spite of all that horror though, we can rest assured that we’ll be safely chuckling along again with our complacent little (“well-timed”) efforts in one great and merry get-together, as long as we remember not to rock the boat or be too controversial – from within our spineless, illusory comfort zone!Yes, readers, that’s the brave old guard for you in today’s England, hiding behind a cosy, false facade, preaching self censorship with a hypocritical, chummy connectedness. Anyone reminded of the smug salons of the fin-de-siècle? Time to get real and ring some structural and artistic changes, eh, what?

  3. I understand James McDonagh’s call to arms, but the original (well-written and responsible) article, like any PCO group statement has to represent the widely various views of lots of cartoonist members. It may fail to to that, even in its current form – a form which James sees as too anodyne. I’ve no doubt many members will complain and disagree with the tone (as always), but an organisation like PCO which claims to represent its cartoonist members is expected to issue some kind of statement at a time like this. The PCO itself cannot “ring…artistic changes”; that must be down to its individual members, who I have no doubt, will do so in their own way. 

  4. I have to confess I didn’t quite get the ‘beat ourselves up’ bit when I first read it – or even now. It seemed an odd thing to say in an otherwise well-constructed statement, I thought. 

    Then again, that was pretty small beer compared to the amount I didn’t get in James McDonagh’s acidic response. I think I get what you don’t want from us, James, but I’m still scratching my head about what you’d rather replaced it. And I’m very hesitant to ask…maybe a short summary? 
  5. I wonder if you’ve read Dave Brown’s [Independent] piece, James ? I read your comment [above] with interest, but also with some confusion. I bang on quite a lot about the fact that only a minority of cartoonists are editorial or political. But the Hebdo murders [all of them] have made all of us political. I don’t think the cartooned response has been “mealy-mouthed”. But I agree that “worry” is a better term.

    As for ” rules handed down by a higher authority”, let’s drop “higher” and remember that we have the right to vote for or against the “authority”
    You mention the need for structural and artistic changes. What form might they take ?
  6. James ?

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