Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher passed away on April 8, 2013, after a long illness. Her death prompted a campaign for “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead” (yes, that song from The Wizard of Oz) to reach No. 1 in the British pop music charts. Barely two days after the polarizing former Prime Minister’s passing, the song was at No. 10 in the midweek charts, and by the end of the week it had reached the No. 2 position. The campaign attracted controversy; conservative newspapers, commentators, and politicians argued it was distasteful and disrespectful to Thatcher and her family. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) faced an ethical dilemma: Play the song or not?
Let’s consider to whom the BBC owed a duty. First, there is the public. The weekly pop charts are a reflection of what were the most popular songs in Britain in that particular week. Whatever one’s opinion of the tune’s lyrics or the campaign behind it, significant numbers of people parted with their money to purchase the song. Second, there is Thatcher’s family, who were grieving the loss of a loved one, irrespective of her political legacy. Also important is the BBC’s status as a publicly funded broadcaster. Is it the BBC’s role to decline to play a popular song on the grounds that it lacks sensitivity to the events of the day? On the other hand, does a public broadcaster perhaps have a duty to demonstrate a sensitivity that transcends shifting public sentiments?
Ultimately, instead of playing the song in its entirety (which would prompt accusations of disrespect) or declining to play the song at all (which would prompt accusations of censorship), the BBC reached a “golden mean” Aristotle would be proud of. The chart countdown was aired normally until the No. 2 spot was reached, at which point BBC cut to a news item on the controversy surrounding the song. A snippet of the song—which is only 51 seconds long in its entirety—was played amid the report as context. The BBC explained their rationale in an official statement:
The BBC finds this campaign distasteful but does not believe the record should be banned.
The BBC’s Director-General, Tony Hall, said:
I understand the concerns about this campaign. I personally believe it is distasteful and inappropriate. However, I do believe it would be wrong to ban the song outright as free speech is an important principle and a ban would only give it more publicity.
Ben Cooper, Controller of BBC Radio 1, which plays the weekly pop charts, added:
Nobody at Radio 1 wishes to cause offence but nor do I believe that we can ignore the song in the chart show, which is traditionally a formal record of the biggest selling singles of the week. That in turn means that all songs in the chart become an historic fact. I’ve therefore decided exceptionally that we should treat the rise of the song, based as it is on a political campaign to denigrate Lady Thatcher’s memory, as a news story […] To ban the record from our airwaves completely would risk giving the campaign the oxygen of further publicity and might inflame an already delicate situation.
Was this the best way to handle this delicate situation? In a word, no. The problem with finding a middle ground—indeed, the problem with Aristotelian ethics in general—is that the end result is often an undesirable mush that prioritizes compromise over moral fixity.
The pop charts are a value-neutral expression of market sentiment. For the BBC to decline to play the song was to become an actor in a game of political one-upmanship that ill befits a public broadcaster. The supposed middle path trod by the BBC, dressed up in mealy-mouthed platitudes about free expression, ultimately cast the BBC in the role of state censor, paternalistically correcting an errant public for its conduct.
The BBC regularly plays songs with lyrics that are profane and misogynistic (albeit with the offending words blanked or substituted out). It regularly plays songs with political content that may offend some on either the left or right wings. It regularly plays songs that are vapid and make one wonder what on earth the public was thinking. The point here is to say that, in journalism, we rightly make the distinction between the public interest and what the public is interested in. It is a distinction that, frankly, we ought to talk more about. But a pop chart is not journalism; rather, it is a reflection of public purchase. The BBC’s role is not as moral arbiter but as a conduit for the expression of the public’s musical predilections that particular week.
The BBC compounded this calamity with its decision to air in full “I’m in Love with Margaret Thatcher”—a satirical 1980 punk song appropriated as a counter-campaign by Thatcher supporters—as part of the chart rundown (the song reached No. 35). An opportunity to let the marketplace speak was wasted, as the BBC displayed its partiality and lost its integrity.
This analysis is incomplete without attending to the reasons behind the campaign in the first place. Thatcher, we must not forget, won three consecutive elections (in 1979, 1983, and 1987), all by large margins (her Conservative Party went on to win a fourth, in 1992, less than two years after her resignation as Prime Minister). Her political and ideological arguments were tested in the court of public opinion and found to be favorable. Her advocates saw her as emblematic of an aspirational society grounded in free market values.
Yet there remains vast sections of the country—the inner cities, Scotland, the north of England, South Wales—that remained intractably opposed to Thatcher and saw her as a uniquely divisive figure. There are many explanations for this, but first and foremost must be Thatcher’s ideological commitment to the closure of Britain’s mining industry, the result of which was to see the lifeblood of many communities torn out and replaced with a vacuum that has subsequently been filled by structural poverty, welfare dependency, and drug addiction. For these communities, Thatcher is a hate figure of unparalleled standing (Google “Thatcher death parties” and see for yourself).
Whatever one thinks of the celebrations and the accompanying song campaign, the correct reading of them is as a reprise of a cathartic expression of frustration that Thatcher had won so often and so decisively. They represent a collective cry of angst against an atavistic world where traditional values of community and solidarity have been eroded and replaced by crass market fundamentalism. For these people, the “Ding-Dong!” campaign was an effort to register their discontent with their wallets—a logic that Thatcher, the ultimate free marketer, would surely have understood. This is not to dramatize or romanticize, but to recognize the depth of feeling against Thatcher that remains across much of Britain. The BBC has an obligation to these people, too, that should not be subservient to “good taste.”
The campaign was clearly unsubtle and provocative. Perhaps it was also childish and tasteless. However, these are emphatically not grounds for a public broadcaster to stifle free expression and belittle public sentiment in the name of a subjective abstraction that goes by the name of “taste.” The BBC failed its public in this case.