When is a protest song not a protest song?


The ding-dong over which witch is which

I’ve tried to refrain from expressing an opinion either way on the media frenzy surrounding the recent death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In part because life-wise, Cambridge during the 1980s was relatively insulated from the devastation that was happening throughout the industrial heartlands of Britain. Thus I never saw first hand the impact of what was going on, even though my parents working in the NHS at the time very much did. 

That’s not to say I don’t have huge criticisms of what her government did throughout the 1980s. Others have listed many, from domestic to international policy in far greater detail than I could in a short blogpost, so I won’t list them here. What’s striking about the memoirs of her former cabinet ministers is how their accounts of what happened are strikingly different on a whole series of key events. It was also the last decade of when there were regular substantive interviews with politicians on issues of public policy – programmes that went on for long enough that meant interviewers had to read up, and politicians had to be prepared to go beyond soundbite. It’s a shame the only digital video of Brian Walden I can find is the spoof with Rik Mayall – brilliant as it is.

“What’s so funny?”

In the world of comedy, many of the legendary names we see as pillars of the entertainment establishment sharpened their teeth during the Thatcher years – as if they were the official opposition in the face of Labour imploding during the 1980s. In one sense it speaks volumes of some of the greed and money culture that Harry Enfield came up with the character “Loadsamoney” – one that charted in 1988 with this appalling track. At the other end was this sketch by Fry and Laurie on what a privatised police force might look like. Is it just a matter of time before we end up with “Britlaw PLC” or do we already have that with G4S?

“Yeah Pooffles, what’s that got to do with witches, you being a dragon and all that?”

For those that lived under Thatcher, she polarised opinion, despite the shrieking of the headlines that are disturbingly acting as if trying to rewrite history. JohnnyVoid’s piece sets this out in more detail. Alex Andreou also gives a very interesting take here.

The whole thing about witches is that lots of people have started buying a song from The Wizard of Oz soundtrack – Ding dong the witch is dead. “The Witch” as far as those buying the song in their thousands, being Margaret Thatcher. And not surprisingly this has led to a media frenzy with politicians saying some curious things. This is because at the time of writing, the song is at Number One in the singles charts. Yes. Number One. You know that chart position that we used to care about but now no one other than talent show TV producers really care about? 

“But Pooffles! The song is outrageous! We demand this vile anti-Maggie song be banned! It’s an outrageous stunt that insults the defender of free speech!”

No. The song is not outrageous, nor is it an anti-Maggie song. For a start the film from which the song was taken from was originally released in 1939 – at a time when people in the UK were about to undertake the greatest fight for liberty this country has ever known. What politicians and the mainstream media don’t like is how lots of people who don’t like Margaret Thatcher are doing with the song – buying it in their thousands to make a political point. 

This is where the well of contradictions is well and truly exposed. Thatcher was a proponent of free markets and consumer power. It’s not for politicians to turn around and call for songs not to be played in the charts because consumers are expressing an opinion that they do not like. The Chair of the Culture Committee is particularly ridiculous on this point. If radio stations don’t play the song, they risk a Streisand effect, making the whole thing get far more publicity than it otherwise would get – in particular with younger audiences of which not everyone was familiar with who she was. If the mainstream media choose to silence the whole thing, online it becomes a story and thus it risks being amplified far greater to an audience. There is also the transparency of the charts issue. It doesn’t really matter if people try to encourage others to buy another track because of a political point. In 2010 activists tried to do this following the general election with Captain Ska. Unlike the current Number 1, this one didn’t make the top 40 in part because airplay didn’t get beyond activist circles. 

It’s notable that Nick Clegg has taken a different view from Whittingdale, stating that it wasn’t the state’s business to tell broadcasters what they should and should not broadcast

Is there a precedence with the calls for the song not to be played?

It’s one thing to call for a song not to be played because contains offensive lyrics – such as swear words or advocating violence against a group of people. It’s quite another thing for a song from one of the most well known Hollywood movies of all time to be considered offensive given that no one made a fuss about it for the last…oooh…three quarters of a century. 

Whether something is in good taste or not does not automatically merit banning – in any case in the interconnected world we’re in, such high-profile actions end up having the opposite effect. If the BBC choose not to play the song, will it also mean that TV channels will refrain from screening the Wizard of Oz, or online film companies prevent people from downloading it, or DVD shops from selling it? How long for? Again, all of this goes against the basic principles of consumer sovereignty that pro market types are so in favour of, as well as freedom of expression that, in so far as the struggle against the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet bloc was concerned, Thatcher is very strongly associated with. This despite the glossing over all too often of her associations with repressive dictatorships, the most high profile one being that of Pinochet in Chile. Their most recent high profile get together was in 1999 following Pinochet’s house arrest in London.

So…is this all a storm in a teacup that has been whipped up by a few newspapers then?

To some extent yes, to some extent no. There are those that are genuinely offended by the actions of those protesting against Thatcher/celebrating her death. Some of these people knew her personally and were genuinely inspired by her. I am neither of these, but can understand how someone who did might feel outraged at their political opposition. But does that outrage justify taking action to clamp down on the legal day-to-day activities of individual people? No. Others may take the view that it is wrong to speak ill of the dead – a point that Sir Tony Baldrey MP made after Glenda Jackson’s electrifying speech against Thatcher’s legacy in the Commons. You can watch both here – and Speaker Bercow’s adjudication.

“So, what are the BBC going to do?”

They’ve just announced they will have a short exchange explaining the context of why the song is in the top 10, before playing a short 4-second excerpt – am typing as this is being broadcast on telly at about 16:15 on a Friday afternoon, with Ben Cooper, Controller of BBC Radio 1 on BBC News. He’s explained he consulted both the director of radio and the new BBC Director General. So it’s gone all of the way to the top. I can’t say I agree with the decision – basically because the chart show has a responsibility to broadcast the chart as is – as fact. Yes, there is a responsibility to edit offensive words or content – especially where there might be the advocation of criminal offences. But with this song? Really? 

If anything, this decision exposes a massive gap between generations that are still struggling with the culture around the internet and social media, and those that grew up with and/or who are more comfortable with how people are choosing to use the internet.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s