On Wednesday 7th January 2015 a major news story developed in France, when several people were killed by gunmen in the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. My husband and I were aware of events through Twitter and breaking news mobile phone apps. We were in London for a private exhibition viewing for members of the National Portrait Gallery. We didn’t bother switching on the TV news in our hotel so were largely in a “bubble” until we returned home, but when I eventually did tune in to the news channels my growing “disquiet” at media coverage of events crystallised fully.
The satirical publication Charlie Hebdo through cartoons takes a serious swipe toward the Islamic faith in particular. The ideal of freedom of speech is the notion of a person being able to fully express their views and feelings without censorship, and I whole heartedly support that idea. Charlie Hebdo upheld that ideal in the fullest sense publishing in a nation where “freedom” is enshrined in the republic. So when two Islamic brothers opened fire on Charlie Hebdo employees, the French nation clearly saw that as an attack on their republican heritage. It is abhorrent to think that a democracy that upholds the ideal of freedom of speech could be held hostage by religious fanatics. But my unease was heightened by the reaction of the authorities and the general public to the events unfolding.
As I switched on the TV another hostage crisis was occurring in a kosher supermarket in a separate Paris suburb, and again it seemed that two armed people were responsible for the outrage. Reports from the scene told me that police were staking out the supermarket and on a “manhunt” for the Charlie Hebdo killers. The most alarming thing to me was seeing the swarm of police vans thundering up and down the French motorways on the trail of the Kouachi brothers, and the swat teams armed to the teeth around the supermarket. I know the event was serious and had to be dealt with in an appropriate manner, but looking at the media coverage for the first time, I would never have imagined that FOUR people were responsible. It looked like half the French police were in pursuit of a small army of perpetrators spread over a vast region, because why else would EVERY school in an area be evacuated. Journalists in hot pursuit of the story were stopped on the road by armed cops making it VERY CLEAR they were going no further, and I didn’t doubt they would have used their weapons if they felt it necessary. At that point France did not seem a particularly free nation but more like a police state! The authorities would undoubtedly say everything was done to keep people safe, but at the time of extreme agitation, who keeps the people safe from the authorities? I just knew that the offenders would end up dead before the day was out. When news reporters suggested that the authorities would have preferred to bring those responsible to justice, I actually laughed, and at that moment I realised how cynical I have become to how the news is reported.
The reaction of the general public was understandably shock and confusion and occasionally the question “why France?” Thinking about it I wasn’t so surprised that France had come under attack. Not so long ago the wearing of the “burkha” was banned in public by France, saying it was un-French and not constitutional or words to that effect. Whilst I agree that foreign nationals/cultures should assimilate with the traditions and laws of the nation they find themselves in, I’m sure that Muslims affected by the burkha decree felt more marginalised. And I vaguely recall a football commentator saying during a World Cup match that the parents of Zenedine Zidane (French captain) didn’t have a vote in France. At the time (about 13-17 years ago) I remember thinking that information must be wrong, but maybe it wasn’t. The very nature of Charlie Hebdo is deeply offensive to the Muslim faith which views any unwarranted reference to their holy prophet as blasphemy. When a society upholds the right of such a publication to exist whilst potentially marginalising the faith group it offends, a potent mix can be created.
The incidents in Paris have been global news just like the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and the September 11th events in 2001. The rolling out of 24hr news coverage in the last 15-20 years has meant that we can know instantly when something grave has happened, although the monotonous “round robin” nature of it can be incredibly irritating. Two days later you can still be seeing the same thing as “news” because nothing has changed. The BBC sent out a huge team to France to cover what was happening. You know things are serious when Lyse Doucet is deployed but she had at least four other big name colleagues reporting in the vicinity as well. Although the Charlie Hebdo story was big, and the ramifications from the event are potentially huge, was the size of the BBC report team really needed! Other news was happening in the world but you would hardly have known it and I was reminded of the week Princess Diana died. Two other big names passed away at that time but barely made a blip on the radar Sir Georg Solti and Mother Teresa. At the time I remember thinking we were being fed “selective news” and that the general mass hysteria generated from Diana’s passing was considered the normal. The frenzy of emotion in 1997 was picked up by the media and magnified for their big headlines. Looking at the Paris news coverage I am once again picking up on an emotional frenzy being broadcast as the consensus feeling. Heaven help anyone who is perceived as not being part of that consensus, the least they could expect is to be lambasted through social media.
I don’t think that a publication such as Charlie Hebdo could exist in Great Britain, it’s just a feeling I have. There has been some legislation created almost by stealth which makes me think that the true ideal of freedom of speech doesn’t really exist here. When you can be jailed for an idiotic tweet and covert monitoring is going on in the name of “security” I seriously question the rights we have.
As I write this post there is a mass demonstration taking place in Paris in support of unity, freedom and democracy, and several world leaders have arrived in the city to show support including British PM David Cameron. When London suffered its own terrorist atrocities ten years ago I don’t recall any world leaders coming to our support. When policewoman Yvonne Fletcher was gunned down outside the Libyan embassy in 1984, I cannot recall French police standing in honour at her loss, as our Metropolitan police did this week. Different times and different attitudes I know, but to my mind a clear indication of how much Great Britain is viewed around the globe, not very well and of little significance.
I have always felt that the sense of “freedom” is as much a state of mind as anything else. Never more has that been made clearer to me than this week. The other day I seen on Facebook a reference to Stephen Hawking that said “although I cannot move and I have to speak through a computer, in my mind I am free”. When I heard the people of Paris say they would be looking over their shoulders on the metro I was saddened. By allowing followers of a radical ideology to create in you a sense of fear in your everyday life they have won. Only by remaining hopeful and true to the ideals that are dear to you can you truly remain free.