Last week I talked about the British controversy over Maajid Nawaz, a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate who tweeted a link to the satirical cartoon Jesus and Mo, which depicts conversations between a cartoon Jesus and a cartoon Mohammad to explore religious beliefs and attitudes.
The United Kingdom's Channel 4 News decided to run a story about the controversy. Naturally they showed a picture of the cartoon so that viewers could make an intelligent assessment of the claims of offense.
Well, sort of.
In Channel 4 News' story, at about :25, the reporter says:
This is the cartoon that is causing outrage. We have taken the decision to cover up the depiction of Mohammed so we don't cause offense to some viewers.
Channel 4 News has begged the question in classic form: it has censored a cartoon right at the start of its coverage of a debate about whether the cartoon should be censored. It has blacked out a depiction of Mohammed right at the start of putatively covering a debate over whether the few should be able to demand that the many not depict Mohammed. It has yielded to claims of offense right at the start of a discussion of whether society should yield to those claims of offense.
Even though Channel 4 is owned by a public body, this is not exactly state censorship: it is an exercise of terrible journalistic judgment rather than an act compelled by the state. But it is troublesome nonetheless. Channel 4 has pretended to cover a debate, but has actually presumed the validity of the arguments by one side of that debate. It has assumed, in a discussion of whether a cartoon is so offensive that it ought not be shown, that the cartoon is so offensive that it not be shown. It has decided to yield to a religious minority's demands about what can and cannot be depicted.
I have some questions for the alleged journalists at Channel 4 News.
1. Do you censor artistic depictions based on claims of offense even-handedly? If, for instance, you were covering a local council's decision to prevent a performance of the Reduced Shakespeare Company's show The Bible: The Complete Word of God, would you yield to demands of a few that you not show any clips or screenshots of the play, because it is offensive? Would you, like the Guardian, depict Serrano's "piss Christ" in covering the controversy over it?
2. At what point is a group big enough, or its claim of violence loud enough, for you to censor content based upon it? The United Kingdom has a significant American expat community. If I get enough of them to say that depictions of burning the American flag are offensive, will you avoid showing that on the news?
3. Does the safety of your employees, or of bystanders, play any role in your decision? Are claims of offense by some groups more likely to be accompanied by death threats and even violence?
4. If the answer to 3 is "yes," isn't that news?
5. For two years — here and here — I have done an annual review of how "blasphemy" like depicting Mohammed is treated both by states and, occasionally, by mobs. I submit that evidence shows that the notion of blasphemy — primarily, though not exclusively, as defined by Islam — has been used as a justification for abuse of minorities and the powerless. Have you considered whether your decision to yield to blasphemy norms and censor content makes you a party to that norm, and an implicit supporter of that abuse?
Some of those questions may be offensive to some of your viewers. I can show you how to black them out if you like.
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