A shocking week with selective outrage

It was a shocking week, with the awful murders in France dominating the media landscape. But what upset me the most was a report on last Sunday’s Nine News on RTÉ 1 that children as young as 10 were being used as suicide bombers by the terrorist group Boku Haram in Nigeria. Now there’s a severe case of blasphemy… I can barely find words to respond. And I’m amazed at how the media reaction has been so muted – outrage can be so selective.

The French sieges of course made for riveting TV but I wondered how much the coverage influenced events. The always-interesting Prof. Ian Roberston from Trinity College had some pertinent things to say on last Monday’s Today with Sean O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1). He thought the more events were hyped up, the more likely it was for alienated youth to follow a similarly destructive path. In particular, he instanced the way the striking figures in black were shown – the disaffected might take them as attractive role models.

BBC 1’s Big Questions returned for a new series last Sunday morning, and whatever they had planned originally, the freedom of expression debate inevitably took centre stage. I expected an enlightening and thorough discussion, but it was surprisingly cranky from the start, when Douglas Murray of The Spectator got into an ill-tempered exchange with Raza Nadim of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee. I liked the gentle contribution of Taiwo Adewuyi of the Evangelical ‘Discuss Jesus’ group – he thought that mockery was poison and couldn’t see the value of it. Presenter Nicky Campbell asked some searching questions, for example, raising the censorship of holocaust deniers.

Back home, I thought Ali Selim of the Islamic Cultural Centre made useful and moderate contributions to the debate. He said he would seek legal advice if offensive cartoons were published here, though some media outlets turned this into him threatening legal action, which made him appear more hardline that he was.


Among other programmes, he was on RTÉ Radio 1’s News at One last Thursday and, on the same show, the issue was discussed with Prof. Colum Kenny of DCU. Kenny’s contribution was quite measured and informative. Begging more than a few questions, presenter Richard Crowley suggested that the idea you couldn’t visually depict the prophet of Islam was “ludicrous” to “the rest of us”, but Kenny didn’t go along with that assumption, arguing for a more nuanced and sensitive approach.

Taking a quirky but nuanced line that Thursday afternoon was graphic novelist Art Spiegelman in a thorough discussion on Democracy Now, one of RTÉ Radio 1 Extra’s imported shows. He reckoned that the magazine Charlie Hebdo was more anti-authority than left wing, and suggested they were following the “great adolescent impulse”. Indeed, from what I’ve heard and seen of its content, it seems to have been a frequently unpleasant piece of work.

That evening on The Last Word (Today FM), David Quinn of the Iona Institute and Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland were as close to singing from the same hymn sheet as I’ve ever heard them.

Neither was a fan of our blasphemy law, both agreed there needed to be some limits on freedom of expression, and both favoured erring on the side of freedom.

Quinn, however, was worried that anti hate-speech legislation would be used in a heavy handed way to enforce political correctness and gave examples from at home and abroad of where the trends were already heading in that direction.

On Saturday’s Marian Finucane Show, Paddy Prendiville of the satirical Phoenix magazine agreed there could be no total freedom of speech and thought some of the reaction to events had been over the top. I thought Finucane got it right when she suggested it was a matter of asking where one should draw the line.

I didn’t hear enough on any show about how one should draw the line, and I’m in two minds myself. There were too many knee jerk reactions against our own blasphemy laws – we do knee jerk really well. It’s worth keeping in mind that law has an educative effect, hopefully ensuring some respect in society, and providing a buffer against the excesses of juvenile mockery.

Yet it’s possible the same effect could be achieved by anti-hatred legislation or robust broadcasting standards.

An ongoing debate but, for now, a time to mourn.


Pick of the week

Sunday service

RTĖ 1, Sun, Jan 18, 11.10am 

Ecumenical service as part of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity with the leaders of the Churches in Ireland.

Claire Byrne Live

RTĖ 1, Mon, Jan 19, 10.35pm

New series: Claire Byrne is joined by guests and a studio audience for a live debate.

An Invitation to Courage

EWTN, Tues, Jan 20, 10.30am and 9pm

Learn about the challenges six people with a same-sex attraction face, and their newfound identity as men and women in Christ who embrace chastity as a source of
peace and joy.