Page last updated at 12:40 GMT, Friday, 3 February 2006

How UK press shapes up to cartoon row

By Torin Douglas
BBC media correspondent

French daily newspaper France Soir open on cartoon page
To show unity, many European newspapers printed the cartoon

It might have been thought that UK newspapers and broadcasters - with their strong tradition of free speech - would have followed their counterparts in other European countries and displayed the cartoons that have caused all the controversy.

But no British newspaper has printed them so far and there have been only fleeting glimpses on television, in news items on the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

That was sufficient to prompt a small protest outside BBC Television Centre on Thursday evening.

Two newspapers, the Sun and the Daily Telegraph, displayed the front page of France-Soir - which reignited the controversy yesterday by printing one of the cartoons - but both blanked out the image of Mohammed.

The Sun covered it with the word 'censored'.

Most gave their reasons in editorials and - not surprisingly - none admitted to fear of threats

The Times and the Guardian published links to websites where they could be viewed but did not put them on their own sites.

Why haven't newspapers printed the cartoons? Are they responding to requests not to do so from the Muslim Association of Britain and the European trade commissioner Peter Mandelson?

Are they afraid of reprisals? Or are they simply being sensitive to the offence they would cause some readers?

Most gave their reasons in editorials and - not surprisingly - none admitted to fear of threats.

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

The Daily Mail said: "While the Mail would fight to the death to defend those papers that printed the cartoons, it disagrees with the fact they have done so. Rights are one thing, responsibilities are another.

"The papers that so piously proclaim freedom of speech are deeply discourteous to the Islamic view. An obligation of free speech is that you do not gratuitously insult those with whom you disagree."

Such restraint is unusual in the British media these days - and could set an intriguing precedent

In a leader headed "Why we will defend the right to offend", the Daily Telegraph said it had chosen not to publish the cartoons, in the same way it chose not to print pictures of graphic nudity or violence: "We prefer not to cause gratuitous offence to some of our readers," it read.

"However, there might be circumstances in which the dictates of news left us no choice but to publish - and where the public interest was overwhelmingly served by such an act, we would."

It went on to suggest that those Muslims who cannot tolerate the openness and robustness of intellectual debate in the West had perhaps chosen to live in the wrong cultures, ending with a quote from a Jordanian paper: "Muslims of the world, be reasonable."

The Independent, a fierce champion of free speech, said: "There is a right to exercise an uncensored pen. But there is also a right for people to exist in a secular pluralist society without feeling alienated, threatened and routinely derided as many Muslims do now.

"To elevate one right above all others is the hallmark of a fanatic. The media have responsibilities as well as rights."

And the Guardian said: "Newspapers are not obliged to publish offensive materials merely because it is controversial ... the restraint of most of the British press may be the wiser course - at least for now."

Such restraint is unusual in the British media these days - and could set an intriguing precedent.



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