The Corner

Charlie Hebdo’s False Friends

A year after the Charlie Hebdo killings, here’s Mick Hume of Spiked Online on the hypocritical reaction of much of the political class to the assault on free speech those attacks represented:

The French authorities led the way, responding to the murderous assault on free speech in their capital by ordering a crackdown – on those whose speech they found offensive. They thus spelled out their version of standing up for free speech: they would fight to the last for the people’s right to say things that government and judges approved of….

Across the Channel, the free-speech fraudsters turned out in force in the UK after the Charlie massacre. UK politicians from Tory prime minister David Cameron to then Labour leader Ed Miliband, and liberals who have led the campaigns to criminalise ‘offensive’ speech and sanitise the scurrilous, dirt-digging British tabloid press, suddenly expected us to believe that they were freedom fighters for the satirical and scandal-mongering French press’s right to offend.

In the year since then, the UK political class has shown its true colours as a defender of free speech ‘in principle’ that will take every opportunity to attack it in practice. Cameron has repeatedly stated his government’s determination to defend ‘British values’ against Islamism – by restricting those presumably non-British values of free speech and tolerance everywhere from the internet to the university. Meanwhile, the Labour opposition is now led by veteran state socialist Jeremy Corbyn, whose views on free speech make Miliband look like a wild libertarian by comparison. Among other things, Corbyn is a supporter of a media-reform campaign that wants to see less press and media freedom, declaring that ‘communications should be organised and regulated’ by the state. Including, presumably, satirical magazines.

Much of the cultural elite in the UK wrestled with its liberal conscience in response to Charlie Hebdo, and lost. The London Review of Books, a self-proclaimed champion of artistic expression, could barely disguise its lack of empathy with the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. LRB editor Mary-Kay Wilmers dismissed those ‘who insist that the only acceptable response to the events in Paris is to stand up for “freedom of expression”’. Those tell-tale inverted commas appeared to offer the same comforting support to ‘freedom of expression’ as a noose might to a hanging man…

It’s not just Europe: As last year’s dramas on campus—and not just on campus—remind us, free speech has many enemies in America too.

Even so, I was struck by this:

The departing ombudsman of National Public Radio, Edward Schumacher-Matos, openly declared ‘I am not Charlie’ and suggested that ‘much of what Charlie Hebdo does’ should be seen as ‘hate speech unprotected by the Constitution’. In fact, offensive ‘hate speech’ is protected in the US by the First Amendment, as Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons certainly would be.

Not an ombudsman—someone who is meant to speak up for listeners— whose departure should be mourned, I reckon.

I note, incidentally, that Schumacher-Matos used to hold “the James Madison Visiting Professorship on First Amendment Issues” at the Columbia School of Journalism, teaching, I can only assume, future journalists when to be silent and who to shut up (Charlie Cooke had a bit to say about this last year):


A year after the Charlie Hebdo murders, it should be clearer than ever that the Islamist gunmen acted not just as the soldiers of an oldish Eastern religion but also as the armed extremist wing of a thoroughly modern Western creed. From the official censors of the police and political elite to the army of unofficial censors online, the cri de coeur of these crusaders against offensive speech is ‘You Can’t Say That!’. The Islamist gunmen took that attitude to a murderous extreme.


In a related editorial, Spiked adds:

Free speech makes us morally autonomous, fully human, through allowing us to say and hear everything and to decide for ourselves what is good or bad, right or wrong. Censorship, in contrast, makes us into children, only allowed to think and utter what our betters have already decreed to be right and good.

So one year on from that bloody day, let us once again say ‘Je Suis Charlie’, but let us also stand up for the freedom of speech of everyone who finds themselves fined, jailed, shamed, shushed or Safe Spaced out of existence merely for holding and expressing unpopular views. Fighting for freedom of speech remains the most important cause of our times.

That those pieces were published during a week when Germans were discovering the initial reluctance of some of their media to discuss the Cologne attacks only underlines Spiked’s point.

The most effective censorship is self-censorship.   

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