Tomorrow Charlie Hebdo hits the newsstands. I hope I manage to buy a copy – not sure if I’ll be able to find it in London, but I’ll give it a try. We have to remember those who died – journalists, police officers, among them a Muslim police officer, Jewish shoppers and others just trying to do their jobs, as well as those who survived, among them a Muslim supermarket worker, who protected some of the shoppers in the Jewish supermarket. Those who died are part of our struggle, to protect our right to freedom of expression, so eloquently expressed by the symbol of the pencil and pen, held aloft, though like many journalists I touch-type faster than I can write by hand…
And yet I’ve written two books that investigate hate crime and hate speech against minorities. I’ve written many articles and blogs about protecting free speech but balancing that against the rights of particularly vulnerable communities. Just last year, I was in Norway, speaking at a conference about hate speech, where far right extremist Anders Breivik murdered young Norwegians in 2011 and ignited an on-going debate about the limits of freedom of expression.
I believe it’s important that we protect free speech. It’s one of the cornerstones of our democracy. I couldn’t function without it, as a writer and journalist. After the Leveson Inquiry, when we as a profession were held in so low regard (and with some justification) it has been extraordinary and rather wonderful to see an outpouring of warmth for the principles so many journalists hold dear – holding power to account and speaking truth to power. We must be independent voices, too – as those at Charlie Hebdo were – criticising all vested interests equally. We are held accountable for our actions in so many ways – through the courts, through public opinion – and now, fatally, down the barrel of the gun. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I didn’t fear reprisal, with some stories. Why not be honest? Publishing stories about stalkers makes it more likely you will be stalked. Publishing stories about criminals makes it more likely they will take revenge. Of course we are afraid. I have lost sleep on many occasions, thinking that I might lose everything I have on a libel claim, or I might be physically attacked. It hasn’t happened yet, but yes, there have been a number of threats. So far, on most occasions, I have managed to get most stuff published anyway – but not one story I have spent over one year on, about ‘honour-based’ violence.
Do we lose our humanity when we write some stories? I hope not. Anything we write or broadcast may be hurtful, but it is usually not meant to be so. One has to knowingly take offence, as well as give offence. That, for me, is the core of hate speech, and why what Charlie Hebdo did, was not hate speech, it was free speech. If you mock everyone and everything equally, without one target, that is the role of the court jester. It is not targeted abuse at one specific minority (targeted hate, incitement). If you wish to take offence at a cartoon, with a gun, you are the one with hate in your heart, not the person with a pencil in the hand. #CharlieHebdo.