BBC Guidelines on Depicting Muhammad

BBC_GatesIn the wake of the appalling Islamist terror attacks (still currently unfolding at the time of writing) in France this week over apparent cartoon based satire of Muhammad – one deeply obscene question is doing the rounds yet again; ‘Should news channels show the cartoons in question?’.

The fact that this question is even asked, and indeed that most news channels will not show the cartoons integral to their reporting proves we’ve already lost our freedom of expression in this area.  It’s gone.

I was appalled to learn this week that depicting Islam’s prophet on the BBC is actually prohibited as per their own stated editorial guidelines:

“The prophet Mohammed must not be represented in any shape or form.”

Full of bluster, indignation & aspirations of petitioning – I was half way through a ranty blog post on the topic when the BBC pulled the guidelines in question from their website and announced they were making revisions:

They’ve spared you my unlettered ramblings at least, but I do wonder at which point was prohibiting depictions of Muhammad considered ‘in date’ or acceptable?  It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve reported on their refusal to promote freedom of expression over the ‘hurt feelings’ of the godly.

I await the revised guidelines with anticipation1. When will a mainstream news channel take a brave stance on this?  Or even an honest one?  Let’s no longer pretend we are concerned about upsetting the sensibilities of the religious – we’re scared we will be killed.  And for good reason.  Only when you admit the problem can you even hope to combat it.

As Ayaan Hirsi Ali has said, now is the time to ‘spread the risk’.

UPDATE: 09/01/15

The updated guidelines are in.  The relevant section reads:

Any content dealing with matters of religion and likely to cause offence to those with religious views and beliefs must be editorially justified as judged against generally accepted standards and must be referred to a senior editorial figure or, for independents, to the commissioning editor.

To me, this seems like a long-winded way of refusing to clarify the actual issue at hand whilst keeping the previous position alive – but unstated.  I can’t help but think this has simply been an exercise in reducing the BBC’s embarrassment at having their cowardice and self censorship exposed in plain black & white for all to see.  Let me know what you think in the comments.

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  • The perpetrators of Terrorist atrocities are often described by politicians and journalists as ‘cowards’ among other things.
    It’s an example of the inaccurate use of language when people are somewhat at a loss for words in how to express their rage and infuriation and frustration when inexplicable acts of brutality and barbarism occur as they did today in the offices of Charlie Hebdo.
    Terrorists who carry guns and explosives openly on their person in order to carry out some lethal act of aggression on their so called enemies, whether innocent civilians or otherwise are not in fact cowards. They are many things, none of them pleasant. They may be brainwashed fools, fanatical jihadists or just hooligan thugs who actually enjoy the thrill of killing people and spreading mayhem for its own sake. However they know that what they are doing will almost certainly bring armed forces to bear against them and will possibly result in their own death or serious injury. Therefore they are not cowards as such.
    Calling them cowards is simply a means of insulting them in a way that would hurt them most. They no doubt see themselves as courageous warriors in whatever cause they believe in and justify their actions on the grounds of bravery.
    The sad truth of course is that the real cowards are us. We are allowing ourselves to be silenced by these very acts which are designed to do just that and we are giving in to them because we are afraid. The apologizers and appeasers for Islam are thick on the ground. We are terrified of offending Muslims it seems. No one has the courage to stand up and be counted in this debate, or if they do they are immediately shouted down by the usual bunch of liberals who worship the tolerance of all things even extremists and hatemongers. Anyone can criticize Catholicism or Judaism, it’s open season on those guys and I don’t have a problem with that either, but lay off the Muslims they might kill us.
    We should all come out and voice our legitimate concerns about the nature of this religion and the reasons why it inspires so much hatred and violence in the world. There should be demonstrations in the street throughout the world showing placards of Mohamed apologizing for the outrageous behavior of many of his followers
    If that offends and enrages millions of Muslims so what? We have been offended for centuries by their ‘In your face attitude’ about how they practice their religion.
    I am so sick of hearing the appeasers telling us it is a religion of peace and supporters quoting that convenient verse from the Koran, ‘To kill one person is like killing the whole world’. What about all the verses telling them to kill all the non believers?? Oh but that’s out of context, you can’t take that literally, you don’t understand the Arabic meaning, it was only written in a language 6th century uneducated Arabs could understand etc etc.
    The real truth is that Muslims need educating about their own religion. We in the West should have the courage to do that because so many Islamists have never even read the Koran and if they really knew some of the outrageous things in that ‘sacred’ document they might well have cause to think again. The biggest problem of course is the sheer number of them, 1.6 billion depending on the source you consult. This in fact is the main bulwark supporting their belief. They know that whether it is flawed or not, whether there are many absurdities about it, there are 1.6 billion of them against all the detractors (absurdities like the fact that most of it was simply lifted and plagiarized from the old testament, or the fairy tale of Mohammed’s flight from Jerusalem to Heaven on a winged horse, or the entire Koran being dictated to an illiterate peasant in a cave by the Christian Angel Gabriel)
    The fact is that whatever the absurdities, millions and millions of like minded people are going along with it and therefore it’s easy to accept it and just say,
    ‘Well it must have significance and truth because it has survived for so long and so many others believe it too.’
    That of course is the argument that Christians loved to employ in the past and it worked for a long time until the world became educated and realized that because a lot of people have believed something for a long time doesn’t make it right or true. The church still clings desperately to its claim of over a billion followers but that is totally unrealistic as most are Christians in name only.
    In fact there are far more people now who claim to believe in the Koran than those who follow the Bible, does that make it right? Of course not, especially since those born into Islam have virtually no choice but to accept it because it is forced upon them from early childhood by their parents, their teachers and their peers. It is a complete and holistic doctrine governing every aspect of their lives, from the early morning prayer as soon as they wake up to what they can eat and drink, how they can behave and think, the clothes they can wear, the music they can listen to the books they can read and television shows they can watch the subjects they can study and how they must treat their parents, teachers, friends and members of the opposite sex and their sexual preferences. (Not forgetting that apostasy and blasphemy are even punishable by death in some of these States)
    To deny their religion would be to deny their friends their families and their countries. They are actually reluctant to find out more about Islam in case they discover negative things which would achieve nothing except make them uncomfortable. So what’s the point? They know they can’t do anything about it, even to question it would bring ridicule and suspicion upon them and they would be ostracized which would disrupt their whole way of life. So whether they really believe it or not you can hardly blame them for going along with it and who’s to say that any one of us would not do the same if we were born into the same cultural straightjacket?
    All we can do in the West is to try and help them painful as it may be. What we need to do is to Study the Koran and have sensible open discussions on what it actually says. Throw some light on all its aspects both positive and negative and try and make sense of it, try and understand in a calm and intelligent way why it inspires the sort of extreme and radical behavior that it does and yes, where necessary, have the courage to ridicule the outrageous passages contained in it.
    If that is blasphemy so be it. Blasphemy is not yet against the law in the West so we’d better get to it before the Guardianistas in parliament make it so!
    With globalization the world is becoming smaller and smaller, universal media, entertainment and social outlets are spreading into every corner of the planet. It is getting harder and harder for the religious dictators to prevent the light of knowledge and understanding from penetrating their dingy little worlds and educating their people. Islam and its followers need a strong dose of enlightenment to bring about a paradigm shift in the rigid and dogmatic direction it is headed. That is the only way forward because otherwise this religion is going to continue down a blind alley which can only end in blood and tears. It may sound arrogant but it actually needs rescuing from itself. There are no definitive leaders like the Pope who can speak for this Ideology. There is no one they can turn to for guidance. The Wahabbi regime in Saudi Arabia is very keen to win the Islamic civil war that is going on at the moment but they are the most extreme and dictatorial of all the sects. Would that be a good outcome for humanity? Hardly, but it is the most likely one at the present time unless we can provide a better example for them.

  • The BBC get a lot of bad press (mostly deserved) but they did how the offending cartoon on Newsnight last night.

    • And let’s hope that is the start of a more sensible, journalistic approach. The cartoons should be included in every single news bulletin about them – so people may be informed as to what it is inspired these attacks. It’s just simple journalism. It seems to vanish when the religion of peace is involved though.

  • Apart from obviously showing the cartoons to honour the slain artists we should tweet them & retweet them en masse. All of the MSM should also get together and agree to show them & keep showing them. The fanatical madmen can’t kill us all.

  • Channel 4 are even more brazen about their cowardice, remember the black ‘egg’ over the Jesus & Mo cartoons, and in this video (around 0:55) they say ‘it is Channel 4 policy not to show these cartoons.’

    To paraphrase Hitch, we are paying for the rope which will choke us!

  • Count yourselves lucky as, at least, in your countries the media refers to these animals as “fanatical”, “radical islamists”, “jihadists”… Where I live they are just terrorists.

  • The photo you’ve used is out of date. BBC does not broadcast its news or anything else from TV Centre anymore, they have been based in Broadcasting House in London W1 since March 2013.

  • I’ve never looked at these before.
    Anyone noticed 12.4.3 before? If I’m reading it right it’s “if your going to say your god has superpowers, not in front of the kids, ok”
    Seems an odd juxtaposition.
    “We don’t want to offend you, but we don’t want our kids to hear anything you’re spouting”.

  • It’s hardly just the television media.

    There’s not a mainstream newspaper in the UK that published any of the cartoons on Thursday, which could have been editorially justified on many counts.

    Indeed, a number preferred to do the terrorists’ work for them and use a picture of the injured policeman seconds before he was murdered. Just one chose to pixilate the victim’s face.

  • I should add: given the way that the UK Establishment as a whole kowtows to religious faith as a whole, the BBC is merely continuing its role as Establishment broadcaster.

    Until we stop treating religious faith as somehow deserving of special treatment and respect, we’ll continue with the same problems. Indeed, in recent years, we’ve seen an increase in offence taking from across religious divides.

    Where once it might have been limited to Mary Whitehouse attempting to foist her prudish ideas onto everyone and demand censorship of anything she didn’t like, we have, since the ‘Satanic Verses’ outcry 27 years ago, seen many other outcries, from protests by one religious group closing a play, death threats to the BBC for programming that offended another religious group (these whipped up by two right-wing tabloids), and poetry readings stopped because of more threats.

    And so on.

  • I laughed when all the ‘brave’ journalists came out shouting outrage and condemnation at North Korea’s hacking of Sony computers because of their new film. I lost count how many times I heard these brave ‘freedom of speech warriors’ preach the well worn phrase ‘I might not like what you have to say but I will die defending your right to say it’ bullshit. And telling us how they would not be cowered by such bullies.

    Where are they now? hiding away shitting their pants and waving their little white flags.

    Organisations like the BBC actively help empower this death cult by destroying the livelihoods and lives of any employee that dares criticise, question or disagree with Islamic ideology.

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  • I’m intrigued by the notion (usually put forward by people who aren’t journalists) that journalists like me should all do everything in our power to spread the images, otherwise we’re cowards, and we should do this because ‘the fanatical madmen can’t kill us all.’. Really? How many of our lives are you willing to offer up to sate your desire to show people a cartoon? What kind of attrition rate is acceptable here? If they haven’t got enough bullets for all of us (as someone said on Twitter the other day), how many bullets do they have? I know it’s not an either/or thing but I don’t think a wider audience for a cartoon is worth even one more life. But that’s because I’m a coward.

    • Well, at least you admit your concerns are motivated by fear – which is something the mainstream media have been unwilling to concede. I can entirely respect your fears in this area.

      But let’s not forget many journalists and publications throughout Europe and elsewhere have published the image – it’s mainly the U.K. and U.S. press that sacrificed their journalistic integrity in accordance with fascistic Islamic blasphemy laws. This sets a dangerous precedent.

      The fact we are now in a position where the so-called ‘free press’ of the U.K. & the U.S. are now unable to broadcast a cartoon is a situation that cannot be highlighted enough.

      Fine, as a journalist it’s your choice and your concerns may be valid. This doesn’t change the fact your ability to do your job properly has now been compromised.

      You can either share the risk in your opposition to fascism, or compromise and self-censor your journalistic voice. It’s been made clear, without a doubt which choice our mainstream media have opted for

      • I can see the justification for publishing the cover as part of the story. But I can also see the arguments against doing so, and I don’t think it’s as cut and dried as you think. Most images we consider for publication are completely benign. Some stories have images associated them which no organisation would dream of publishing (child abuse images, for example). Some have images associated with them which some would publish and others wouldn’t (such as dead bodies, images of abused animals etc). The cartoons, because of their cultural context, fall into this last category. ‘Doing our job properly’ is to make that judgment honestly and according to our principles (those of us that have them). Non-publication of the cartoons has not impaired anyone’s ability to tell the story of the murders, their perpetrators, the survivors or the wider issues.

        I don’t actually believe my life would be in danger were my paper to publish the cartoon. But I find the ‘not enough bullets’ argument extremely distasteful, because it seems to take as its starting premise that my life would be in danger, but that’s OK because free speech.

        • I disagree with pretty much all of that. I’ll explain why.

          Some stories have images associated them which no organisation would dream of publishing (child abuse images, for example). Some have images associated with them which some would publish and others wouldn’t (such as dead bodies, images of abused animals etc.). The cartoons, because of their cultural context, fall into this last category.

          I completely disagree with the false comparison being made here with dead bodies/child abuse etc. Before I address them, let’s keep in mind we are talking about a cartoon of a historical figure holding a sign saying ‘all is forgiven’

          In regards to child abuse images; there are laws prohibiting the display of such images in the UK media – based on the age of the child and the images’ context/content. To protect the child. That’s why no organisation would ‘dream of publishing them’, it’s illegal. Who are we protecting when we refuse to publish the images of a dead historical figure? The Prophet? Hurt feelings?

          Secondly, we do see images of dead bodies and abused animals on the news and across televised documentaries all the time. ‘Warning, the following may contain images that some viewers may find distressing’. Why is this warning suddenly not sufficient to images that may offend Islamic sensibilities? Why does Islam get a free pass? I think we know why. Let’s not continue this laughable pretense that cartoons of Muhammad are censored because their ‘cultural context’ puts them into the same bracket as images of animal cruelty/human or child abuse images. Journalists and the mainstream media are not trying to avoid distress or offence. They are trying to avoid reprisals.

          ‘Doing our job properly’ is to make that judgement honestly and according to our principles (those of us that have them).
          I agree. And by trying to argue this has anything else other to do with fear is not honest.
          Non-publication of the cartoons has not impaired anyone’s ability to tell the story of the murders, their perpetrators, the survivors or the wider issues.

          You’re now trying to argue that not showing a cartoon central to the reporting of why some people feel a cartoon is worth killing for, has not ‘impaired anyone’s ability’ to report on this story of why people are killing for a cartoon. Can you think of any other context where you would omit a similarly innocuous cartoon that was central to a story of why people were killing for a cartoon?

          I don’t actually believe my life would be in danger were my paper to publish the cartoon. But I find the ‘not enough bullets’ argument extremely distasteful, because it seems to take as its starting premise that my life would be in danger, but that’s OK because free speech.

          Your life is in danger whether you publish these cartoons or not. You stand for everything Islamists hate, as does anyone who doesn’t share their fascist worldview. The point is, by not showing solidarity with other journalists and media professionals by ‘sharing the risk’, journalists made it a lot easier for employees of Charlie Hebdo to be slaughtered. They were alone before, and those that remain are alone now. Fellow journalists have failed them, and in turn – failed freedom of expression.

          • I definitely didn’t put the cartoon in the same bracket as child abuse images. I put it in a different bracket. Three brackets: Innocuous in one, unpublishable in another, cartoons in the third along with others where editorial judgment is an issue.

            But yes, it’s a poor comparison because actual children have been harmed. So let’s imagine something else. There is nothing intrinsically offensive or harmful about the letters F, U, C and K in that order. But because of what they mean in our language, and the cultural meaning of that particular expression, I wouldn’t want to see them in 140pt on the cover of CBeebies magazine. Were things different, and those letters didn’t spell out a swear word, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. But things aren’t different, and they do, so I do. Would you?

            You take your victim as you find them. You and your guest in the last instalment of your podcast (excellent, btw) make the point that most Muslims couldn’t give a flying one about cartoons of Mohammed. So causing offence to ordinary, reasonable people isn’t really an issue here. The issue is that we’re being told by strangers to make ourselves targets for the next murderous fanatic looking for an excuse, otherwise we’re cowards. And Ian, it’s far from one person’s comment on Twitter. It’s a widely held view, and one expressed in the comments above, which drew me into this thread.

          • (Do a Columbo, do a Columbo…)

            Boldface or no, they’re not killing for a cartoon. They’re killing for hatred and using a cartoon as an excuse.

          • And why have you decided that, given all the evidence points to the contrary?

          • GS: Because of the number of people who have been killed by Islamist fanatics around the world without having published any cartoons of anyone.

            Ian: Yes, I realise that. Just saying the viewpoint – that there exists an acceptable rate of journalist attrition – is not limited to that one tweeter. I can’t speak for all journalists any more than a ‘moderate Muslim’ can speak for all Muslims, but in my opinion it’s a matter of choice, not self-censorship. Freedom of expression includes freedom of non-expression as well.

          • But we’re not talking other Islamist fanatics, we’re talking the Islamist fanatics who stormed a magazine to enforce Islamic blasphemy laws over the depiction of their prophet. Do you know something the rest of us don’t? This is very much about cartoons

        • So your reason not to publish the cartoon is because you fear insulting Islam. Why didn’t you just say that?

          Also, I wouldn’t let one persons comment on Twitter get to you.

          • I think journalists would receive a more sympathetic reaction in this matter if they simply admitted self censorship out of fear rather than cultural respect.

            Tom, I was referring specifically to your comment (shown below) regarding what one person said on Twitter :-

            “(as someone said on Twitter the other day), how many bullets do they have?”

What do you think? Leave some comments!