Royal Grammar School

Newcastle

Speaking Out

Speaking Out


I was going to write this first blog of 2015 about something else: but I cannot ignore the outrage perpetrated in Paris on Wednesday. The French satirical magazine that was the target of that murderous attack, Charlie Hebdo, certainly rattles cages. Undoubtedly it sometimes gives offence. 

That is the nature of satire. Satire lampoons (which is a way of calling to account) politicians and policymakers. It deflates the pompous, punctures the self-deluding powerful and pokes fun at the artificial, the downright smug and the plain wrong. It puts down the mighty, and sometimes even succeeds in exalting the humble and meek.

We need satire. Indeed, it worries me that, in the UK, there is so little satirical television nowadays, just Mock the Week and Have I got News for You. There’s an hour a week at most on Radio 4, since The News Quiz alternates with The Now Show, and precious little else.

As for newsprint, there’s only Private Eye, a small, hilarious, dedicated and sometimes outrageous institution that we should treasure. It’s not enough! What happens when we lose the ability to laugh at ourselves as a society, at our institutions and at our pretentions?

Perhaps we’ve just seen a demonstration of precisely what happens. In a grotesque distortion of piety and a wilful perversion of the teachings of Islam, murder has been committed in broad daylight. It demands of all of us that we condemn it utterly.

I think we have to go further and encourage the young in the right direction (which is why this does finally have some place in a blog on a school website). We may disagree with at least some of the utterances of a magazine like Charlie Hebdo: but along with French philosopher Voltaire, we must be prepared to defend to the death its right to say them. 

America is perhaps better on free speech than this country. Here, unpardonable excesses by the press in terms of intrusion into privacy, and downright illegality, led to the Leveson Enquiry and, in its wake, perhaps too much (somewhat hysterical) public support for the concept of muzzling the media. A legally-backed gag is less violent than the gun of a crazed fundamentalist: but it possesses no greater right to silence free speech.

Let’s remember that fact, recognise the danger and ensure that, as we bring up and educate the next generation of adults, we enshrine in that process the principle of free speech and encourage children to value and even to fight for it, and for the freedoms it underpins. 

We must give them a voice and allow them to practise using it, learning to stand up for what is right and to speak out.

Television news constantly shows us the terrorist organisation Islamic State (again, in cynical defiance of the true message of Islam) imposing the alternative by brute force across swathes of the Middle East. If our own fear of speaking out allows that tyranny to spread: if apathy engendered by our generation in its children permits that inhumanity to take root, we shall have failed our children and our world.

We cannot allow that to happen.

Bernard Trafford 
Headmaster