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12 January 2015

Let's support the Press in duty to confront menace of Islamic terror

Tributes near the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, as dozens of world leaders led a defiant march through Paris in the wake of the terror attacks. Steve Parsons/PA Wire.

Although most are appalled by the atrocious Charlie Hebdo murders, plenty have jumped in to apportion blame to the dead cartoonists.

Take the influential American Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights whose President, Dr Bill Donohue, released a statement entitled "Muslims are right to be angry".

"Killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned" and could not be tolerated, he explained, "but neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction". The cartoonists' work represented "an abuse of freedom": they had been very offensive to Catholics.

I smiled when I read the purpose of Dr Donohue's organisation: "Motivated by the letter and the spirit of the First Amendment, the Catholic League works to safeguard both the religious freedom rights and the free speech rights of Catholics whenever and wherever they are threatened."

What the First Amendment says is: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the Press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

Donohue interprets that in a novel way with the help of lawyers and picketers by trying to close down any media criticism of Catholicism, while simultaneously defending vicious attacks on those he sees as its enemies.

Praising Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic The Passion of Christ, he explained that "Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular".

I think Dr Donohue was born into the wrong religion. There's not much reason to be afraid of Catholics these days. He'd have been able to achieve so much more as an iman putting the fear of Allah into the kaffir.

We can denounce the intolerance of mad mullahs and old-fashioned bigots like Donohue, but in Ireland we still haven't much to congratulate ourselves for. North and south, we tolerated constraints on the Press.

We might have escaped decades of violence in Northern Ireland had Press attention forced politicians to confront injustice and petulant non-cooperation and had there been satirists to make the electorate laugh at the leaders of both unionism and nationalism. Yet in Northern Ireland, some members of the DUP, led by Ian Paisley, are still intent on trying to block libel reform.

In the Republic, Catholic authoritarianism and censorship and savage libel laws were a toxic combination that have now been replaced by the spreading tyranny of political correctness, which has had journalists threatened with prosecution for doing their job and saying what they think.

Self-censorship is a real curse. I'm a writer of books who began to write for newspapers because so few journalists seemed prepared to be frank about the IRA. My first political articles were in early 1990s, when the nationalist Press north and south was being encouraged always to put the health of the peace process before frankness.

I'm an historian: I thought our job was to tell the truth, however inconvenient.

I know that our own media can be deeply unfair, and I rail against it frequently, but we need a free Press to keep an eye on our politicians, businessmen, religious leaders and anyone else of influence.

Censorship is bad. So is self-censorship. Charlie Hebdo could be gross and deeply offensive in their assaults on religion, but it's the French way, and they pulled no punches on secular targets either.

Islamism is a problem that too many well-meaning journalists chose to downplay. Every time there is some dreadful murder by someone shouting "Allahu Akbar", there will be useful idiots explaining that they can't have been Muslim because Islam is a religion of peace.

Rubbish. Islamists believe in a god who makes Ian Paisley Senior's at his worst seem like a pussycat. We will get nowhere in combating their frightful religious ideology if we trim, watch our words, worry about offending nice Muslims and fail to criticise those who support violent anti-Semites like Hamas.

Charlie Hebdo were doing their job. The Press is now more scared than it's ever been. It needs society's support.

Passing libel law reforms would be a start.


Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards