Public Editor

Publishing the offensive Charlie Hebdo images

A number of readers have contacted me to urge The Star to run the cartoons published by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that (at least ostensibly) that offended the gunmen who killed 12 and wounded at least 11 more on Jan. 7.

“It is (The Star’s) duty as an upholder of the concept of free speech to show us what they were so mad about, and let us decide if it was a problem or not,” said one caller.

Another reader wanted The Star to run another image likely to offend a different audience. “Why doesn't The Star publish one of that mag's more depraved images, the one showing a three-way sodomite party, with Jesus Christ, God the Father and the Holy Ghost as the main attraction?” he emailed.

This second challenge brings up an interesting point. I honestly don’t think that some people can understand why a cartoon is legitimately offensive to those Muslims who believe strongly that any depiction of Mohammed — particularly one where he’s kissing an atheist cartoonist passionately — is against their religion.

It’s illustrative, then, to consider this emailer’s point about another cartoon from the magazine that could quite easily offend Christians.

Charlie Hebdo is also a little difficult to describe to American audiences. I lived with a French family while I was in high school, and I have a French degree, so I may be able to share my impressions of the national psyche. The French have a culturally-transmitted constitutional irreverence to authority and obscenity that’s been developed over centuries, and it’s difficult to explain. Publications featuring scatology, blasphemy and pornography are sold on newsstands alongside serious news, sport and even children’s magazines, with no censorship of their covers.

To my mind, Charlie Hebdo is something of a cross between Mad Magazine and Larry Flynt’s Hustler — though that’s an imperfect comparison.

So back to the question of whether The Star should run these images for its general-interest audience. Part of that has already been answered, because the Opinion section ran six editorial cartoons the day after the massacre, and one of them included a legible reproduction of the magazine’s kissing cover.

I’ve long agreed with readers who think The Star should be fearless in publishing controversial material when it’s the subject of a news event or a debate. And indeed it has published a lot of things that offend some of its readership, including every profanity that I’m familiar with, save one. And no, I’m not listing them here, as that would be gratuitous.

But what if there’s a question about whether a photograph is pornographic or not? Should editors run it and let readers decide?

I see no single answer. But in this case, at least one questionable Charlie Hebdo image has been made public (and I’m doing it again here).