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Not without fear or favour: how the world's media lost their nerve after Paris

Even after the million-strong march in Paris, the candlelight Je Suis Charlie vigils, the editorials sermonising about "free speech", the world's most respected Anglophone media are still vulnerable to accusations of cowardice and hypocrisy. Leading editors in the US and UK remain jittery about publishing images that might expose them to Islamist retribution and are too bloated with self-delusion to admit that's the case. While there's been more editorial courage on display in Australia, when the standard-bearers of truth start to quake, the ground shifts beneath everyone's feet.

When on Tuesday news broke that the surviving staff at Charlie Hebdo had devised a cover for the magazine's first post-massacre edition, The News York Times ran the story with a photograph. Not a photograph of the cover, the image that is the news story, the image that breaks no law of the land, the image its readers were undoubtedly curious to behold. Instead, the journal of record in the land of the free and home of the brave ran a lame shot of the genuinely brave Charlie Hebdo reporters working at their temporary office at the newspaper Libération. Readers needed to follow a link to see the cover itself, a poignant illustration of a teary Muhammad holding a "Je suis Charlie" sign below the words "All is forgiven". The set-up felt weird. Still, the fact the image was accessible at all represented progress of sorts because The Times had refrained from publishing previous Charlie covers in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

Illustration: John Spooner.
Illustration: John Spooner. 

Timid journalism has produced material so ludicrous as to be beyond satire. In the UK, The Telegraph ran a photograph of someone reading an edition of Charlie Hebdo with the cover blurred because it contained an image of Muhammad. The same paper ran another photograph of the magazine's former publishing director, the murdered Stéphane Charbonnier, holding the Charia Hebdo edition with an image of the Prophet on the cover and the line "A thousand lashes if you don't die laughing". It was after this 2011 edition that the magazine's offices were firebombed. The photograph was cropped to hide the magazine cover from view; a blithe insult to the memory of the slain man and a stunning sin against journalism. Time magazine published a photo gallery of Charlie Hebdo covers, but omitted the ones that depicted Muhammad, drawing unflattering attention to its lack of nerve.

In defending their editorial decisions, most media claimed the blasphemous Charlie Hebdo covers are "deliberately provocative" or "insulting" or "needlessly offensive" to Muslims. But how can running an un-cropped photograph of Charbonnier holding the edition that likely drove his killers to "avenge the Prophet" count as a gratuitous or "needlessly offensive" insult? The discomfort such an image might cause to some Muslims is surely outweighed by its organic news value; a picture worth a thousand words, one that gives readers the back story, the whole story.

Illustration by John Spooner
Illustration by John Spooner 

And what exactly do the editors mean in calling the images "provocative"? What might these cartoons provoke? Debate, perhaps. Why on earth would media outlets want to suppress debate? Or do editors mean the image is provocative because, even in a secular society based on Enlightenment values, a few religious extremists are determined to be provoked to violence by blasphemous images? In other words, the images are provocative because the Islamists say there are.

The high-brow American NPR radio network argued that running "just a few" covers with the Prophet "could be misleading"  as the images the magazine has put on its cover "might be less offensive to some viewers than the more graphic cartoons that have appeared inside the magazine". Can you follow that logic? There is none. Viewers are entitled to see the images that caused all the fuss, and for that purpose the Charia Hebdo cover, which at least depicts the Prophet clothed, would more than suffice.

The Guardian donated money to keep Charlie Hebdo going. Yet after the attack editor Alan Rusbridger said he wouldn't publish the offending images because they were of a kind "the Guardian would never in the normal run of events publish" – an absurd statement. As if we needed clarification that The Guardian doesn't "in the normal run of events" publish illustrations of religious and political figures with their appendages in many a surprising orifice. Rusbridger disappeared up his own. Yet in an apparent epiphany, The Guardian published this week's Charlie cover, with a warning that some may find it offensive, on the grounds "its news value warrants publication".

The editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, believes detailed descriptions of the cartoons should suffice, as if words could adequately convey the mood, tone and frisson of an image. Baquet said he ultimately chose not to publish the covers out of respect for his Muslim readers. "Let's not forget the Muslim family in Brooklyn who read us and is offended by any depiction of what he sees as his Prophet," he said. Yet in 1999 the paper was game to publish a painting of a black Madonna with a clump of elephant dung on one breast and cutouts of genitalia from pornographic magazines in the background. What of the sensitivities of the Catholic family in Brooklyn?

What's been interesting post-Paris is the fierce public backlash against the media's caution; the criticism of The Times got so intense that Baquet lashed out, calling a journalism academic an "asshole" on social media. At some point editors might have to admit that when cartoons in a Danish newspaper or an obscure movie trailer cause bloody riots, when novelists must live with 24/7 protection, when filmmakers are assassinated on the streets of Amsterdam, when the law of the caliphate is enforced against journalists in the city of Voltaire, the imperative to publish "without fear or favour" becomes ever-so-slightly negotiable, and they become a little less Charlie. 

Julie Szego is an Age columnist.