Publish and be damned?

By Dominic Ponsford

The Irish Daily Star was last week the only paper in the British Isles to publish the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that were the cause of violence and protests across the world.

Columnist Joseph O’Shea, whose piece was illustrated by one of the cartoons, told Press Gazette that printing them was a "no-brainer".

On Thursday, as the row over the Danish cartoons intensified, most Fleet Street newspapers had vigorous internal debates at news meetings and leader conferences over whether or not to publish. All individually decided not to.

O’Shea said: "Half a million people read the paper every day… we basically wanted to give our readers the chance to see for themselves what all the fuss was about and make up their own minds." He added that the Star wanted to "make a stand in our own small way for press freedom in Ireland".

"We realised some people would take offence from it — but we thought it was a bit of a no-brainer."

O’Shea said there had been "a couple of nutters ringing in with bomb threats", but added that he personally had not experienced any backlash.

He said: "Christians have had to learn to live, in some cases, with fairly strong criticism of their religion. Maybe it’s time for Muslims, especially Muslims living in the secular West, to accept criticism and engage in a reasoned debate."

Since the article appeared O’Shea has taken part in radio and TV debates with members of Ireland’s Muslim community to discuss the issue.

In addition to one of the controversial cartoons, O’Shea’s column was illustrated with a still from the film Life of Brian and a picture of TV character Father Ted.

The Muhammad cartoons row began two weeks ago after a senior Saudi Arabian cleric denounced Danish paper Jyllands-Posten for publishing the illustrations in September.

Newspapers in France, Germany, Spain and Italy have all published the cartoons as a show of defiance.

Explaining its decision not to publish the cartoons, The Independent said in a leader: "The right to free expression is one that this newspaper defends uncompromisingly. But it would be false to present this solely as a debate about freedom of speech.

"The media have responsibilities as well as rights. There is a deceptive borderline between controversial and irresponsible journalism. Especially in these troubled times, we all must take care that it is not crossed."

The Times leader said: "This newspaper has had anguish of its own over whether to reproduce the pictures at the centre of this saga… but to duplicate these cartoons several months after they were originally printed also has an element of exhibitionism to it."

The Times provided weblinks to sites where the cartoons can be seen.

The Sun said it could see "no justification for causing deliberate offence to our much-valued Muslim readers".

It added that the row was "largely a manufactured one", saying that the cartoons were originally published in a Danish dispute over free speech.

"The Sun believes passionately in free speech, but that does not mean we need to jump on someone else’s bandwagon to prove that we will not be intimidated," it said.

BBC news chief: ‘WE’VE GONE FURTHER’

The BBC showed glimpses of the cartoons as they appeared in European newspapers.

The editor of BBC TV News, Peter Horrocks, said: "If you compare the BBC’s position to the UK press, where there hasn’t been any publication whatsoever, we’ve clearly gone further than the whole of the printed press.

"We’ve taken the view that still images that focus and linger on the offending cartoons would be excessively offensive, so we haven’t used those."

Horrocks apologised for any offence the BBC may have caused.

David Mannion, editor-in-chief for ITV News, said: "We showed the cartoon in one broadcast only. We showed it in context and in a responsible manner to assist the viewing public in their understanding of the issue. Since then we have not shown the cartoon because, in our judgement, the journalistic imperative has not overridden the offence caused to Muslim viewers."

Sky News also decided not to show the original cartoons, but briefly displayed the front page of France Soir, one of the papers the cartoons were published in.

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