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Charlie Hebdo NUJ debate: Sunday Herald's Neil Mackay clashes with 5Pillars' Roshan Salih on whether the media should critisise religion

An NUJ media ethics debate staged in Glasgow’s Oran Mor Auditorium quickly descended into a discussion of whether the media should exercise its powers to criticise religion - paralleling similar post-Charlie Hebdo discussions around the globe.

The debate was upended by clashes between Neil Mackay, news head at the Sunday Herald and Roshan Muhammed Salih, editor of UK Muslim news website 5Pillars, offering contrasting beliefs on whether it was responsible of the media to critisise Islam.

Speakers professor Mona Siddiqui, professor of Islamic and interreligious studies at the University of Edinburgh, Alison Balharry, formerly of BBC World Service and Al Jazeera, Terry Anderson of Scottish Cartoon Art Studio and Angela Haggerty, editor of news website CommonSpace, to an extent found themselves taking a backseat as Mackay and Salih’s theological differences became apparent.

Noting the strong opinions of the audience debate, moderator Paul Holleran of NUJ Scotland asked if anyone in the room had actually read Charlie Hebdo - leaving a silence in which a pin could be heard dropping. Despite the publication’s circulation rarely breaching 30,000 issues, the Charlie Hebdo massacre sparked hundreds of thousands of #JeSuisCharlie proclamations on social media from individuals unlikely to have familiarity with the magazine’s content and the context in which it published the Mohammed cartoon.

Angela Haggerty, editor of CommonSpace and former Drum reporter, argued that it was not the content of Charlie Hebdo that mattered but the extremist's attempt to gag the publication: “When I heard of the Charlie Hebdo shootings I was in the office, sitting with my team of journalists. The idea of individuals entering a newsroom and slaying human beings because they didn’t like what they had to say filled me with nauseating horror. If it can happen to Charlie Hebdo, it can happen anywhere, and increasingly we see worldwide that it does.”

An audience member accused the media of “not standing in the shoes” of the vulnerable people it purports to represent. Haggerty responded: “There is hypocrisy everywhere, we just need to be honest” adding that readers can be just at fault as writers.

Next, Roshan Muhammed Salih, 5Pillars head, said free speech should be restricted to respect religion, condemning the extremist attacks while also expressing disgust at Chalire Hebdo’s decision to publish the “vile” Prophet Mohammed cover, adding that he would “never show solidarity with racists”.

More broadly, Salih claimed the UK media often “deflects criticism of British foreign policy onto the Muslim community despite Muslims being a small minority in the country."

Britain - and France’s - Muslim communities are “weak and vulnerable” growing only more so due to media “scaremongering," concluding, “The real winners from the Charlie Hebdo attack will be racists, Islamophobes and journalists playing into it.”

Neil Mackay, Sunday Herald news editor, responded: “I don’t respect religion,” before asserting that criticism of religion was not comparable to criticism of race as ideas, even religion, should be open to discussion.

Furthermore, Mackay stated: “You can't say that a religion with 1.6bn followers does not have power - of course it does.”

On what she was doing, to change the media landscape with CommonSpace, Haggerty said: “A new-media must move away from a PR culture, engage with the public and ensure editorial freedom.”

Mackay contrastingly said the Sunday Herald is not going to change, citing his pride in its support of Scottish Independence and its opposition to the Iraq War. He signed off with: “The Sunday Herald will continue being the awkward bastards we have always been.”

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