Charlie Hebdo: Why won't British newspapers publish the cartoons?

Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror and onetime special adviser to the Labour government.

Every national newspaper cartoonist in Britain has responded to the events in Paris with biting, grim humour aimed at undermining the terrorists who virtually wiped out the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo, but no editor has gone as far as printing the images of the prophet Mohammad published by the French satirical magazine.

There have been accusations that the British press is running scared, giving in to jihadists who are threatening free speech and that while claiming "Je suis Charlie" are really saying "ne nous Charlie" (not us).

There would have been long and hard debates in editorial meetings about what should be depicted and the last thing in journalists' minds would have been their own safety – but that is different from acting responsibly.

British newspapers and their cartoonists have a long and well-respected history of satirising, lampooning and viciously undermining authority. For example, a cartoon by Philip Zec published in 1942 caused a political furore that threatened the existence of the Daily Mirror and caused him to be labelled a traitor. The cartoon featured a merchant seaman adrift in rough waters clinging to the remains of a ship, apparently torpedoed by a German submarine. Beneath the picture, the caption read: "The price of petrol has been increased by one penny – Official."

It made its point about profiteers and the inability of the government to stop them, and although to some the depiction of the seaman was shocking, it was in the fine tradition of British cartoonists then and now. We have the right to offend but editors have to make the judgement on what is just gratuitously offensive and therefore should not be published.

In this country we have no equivalent of Charlie Hebdo, a magazine that is primarily made up of satirical cartoons. It prides itself on its gloves-off attitude towards all authority, whether political, religious or industrial. It has no boundaries and firmly believes that that the more offensive the cartoon the more effective it is. It has the right to do so, and the public has the right to buy it or not (the print run is normally 50,000). It is not a newspaper and the editor has not got the same responsibilities as a mainstream newspaper editor.

British editors make judgements every day and by and large have independently decided that unless there is a good editorial reason, there is no right to attack religion by ridiculing the deity – although the Pope, the Ayatollah and other religious leaders are fair game.

Alan Rusbridger, the editor-in-chief of the Guardian, said that there had been a “Twitter feeding frenzy” attempting to provoke newspapers into reprinting controversial images to show they were not cowed. He said there would be no self-censorship but the Guardian would stick by its long-held editorial principles.

"We printed four or five selected images last night [from Charlie Hebdo] but that was not enough for some people," Rusbridger said. "They wanted us to choose more offensive ones. But the Guardian is the Guardian, and we have a different ethos. It would feel like it is tokenism. We will apply our normal values."

I am sure that is the right approach and a stance taken by every editor. While the principle of "nous sommes tous Charlie" is right and must be defended at all cost, the actuality is that in this country being offensive for offensive's sake has never been a tradition.

Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror and onetime special adviser to the Labour government

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