In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the Paris bar lives up to the tradition of Voltaire.
Early in my career when I worked on a newspaper in Kuwait, a colleague on our Arabic sister paper would sometimes drop by the sub-editing room during the night shifts. He was a much older man, a Palestinian cartoonist called Naji, who liked to practise his English, sample our stock of illicit hooch and harangue us on the failings of British Middle Eastern policy from the Sykes-Picot agreement onwards.
Naji was a polemicist. He was famous in the Arab world for his savage depictions of conflict, generally witnessed by ‘Handala’, a barefoot, ragged 10-year-old boy with his back turned to the reader. Another of his favourite images was that of a stereotypical venal and wealthy Gulf Arab, wearing a dishdasha fitted with a quick-opening flap over the genitals. One night Naji excelled himself by drawing a group of such men ostensibly on the Hajj pilgrimage, but with their minds clearly on worldly pleasures.
They came for him the next day, some say with a rope. (I wasn’t in the office.) But Naji was one step ahead; he had flown out that morning to Beirut, not a particularly safe haven in the midst of the Lebanese Civil War. He kept up his art for another 10 years before being gunned down in, of all places, London. Nobody was ever convicted of his killing and the British national daily on which I worked at the time wasn’t particularly interested in yet another tale of apparently internecine violence.
During last night’s Trafalgar Square vigil for the Charlie Hebdo massacre I thought of Naji, and the half-dozen other journalists I’ve known over the years who were killed doing their job. And I was pleased to see that the legal profession in France is under no illusion about what is under attack. The Paris bar’s immediate reaction to the killings was to tweet ‘Lawyers are always defenders of freedom of expression and against barbarism’. The profession is holding a minute’s silence at noon today.
I like that ‘always’. For the moment, at least, the French legal profession seems more committed to the principles of Voltaire than their British colleagues sometimes are to the principles of John Stuart Mill.
In 1859 Mill opened his classic On Liberty with the optimistic words: ‘The time, it is to be hoped, is long gone by, when any defence would be necessary of the “liberty of the press”.’ Not, you will note, ‘liberty of the responsible press’, ‘liberty of the inoffensive press’, or ‘liberty of the regulated press’.
Let’s hope it will not take a massacre here to remind us why that is important.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor