Lorraine Langham: Freedom of speech is no end in itself

The unrest in the wake of the Mohammed cartoon episode has posed elemental questions about freedom of speech in the press.

Free speech is essential in a democracy, but so is responsible journalism that respects religious and cultural sensitivities. The damage to community cohesion that these cartoons have caused is yet to be calculated, but the decisions to publish can surely not be seen as in the public interest.

Those of us who work in the public sector understand how easy it is to cause offence – and how crucial it is to avoid doing so. Insensitive communications can cause irreparable damage – and, as we have seen, this can lead to civil unrest.

Parties such as the BNP can be quick to capitalise on issues surrounding racial tension, but such threats can be used to galvanise a community.

It was the far right's emergence in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets that led to the launch of award-winning newspaper East End Life – in three languages to ensure ethnic minority groups felt represented. Now Tower Hamlets is a Beacon Council for Community Cohesion.

Similarly, Cardiff Council outreach work with the Somali community last year can be taken as an example of best practice in ensuring the Muslim community knows how to access services and is engaged with its local government.

Local government communicators can play a major role in promoting community cohesion, and this may be more important in the wake of the publication of the cartoons than ever before. Council PROs try to get the balance right, but don't always manage to keep everyone happy.

An outer London Borough Council was criticised by the Christian Church in the late 1990s for using the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful to recruit pest controllers, with the last line changed to 'you get to kill them all'. It was hugely successful, attracting an unprecedented number of applicants to the role.

Religion and humour are always fraught with difficulty, but in the latter case I believe the end justified the means. It was not gratuitous.

I would not want to live in a world where we were incapable of laughing at ourselves – or where humour could not be used. But we must all understand the risks and decide where the lines are drawn when standing up for free speech.

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