This week saw the death of the former Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher at the age of 87.
This week saw the death of the former Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher at the age of 87. Thatcher, who served in the role from 1979 to 1990, had been Britain’s first (and only to date) female Prime Minister. Her policies however had been controversial, and the UK had been split on the view of her legacy.
As news of her death emerged, an online petition had circulated by those against Thatcher’s policies for the song “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead,” famous from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, to hit the charts the week of her death. As the week progressed, the song rose in the singles chart monitored by the Official Charts Company which is played on Radio 1 on Sunday. The BBC station had now become a part of the debate on Thatcher as more copies of the song were bought, as calls were made by Thatcher supporters to not play the song in full on this week’s programme.
Then, on the afternoon of April 12, Radio 1 controller Ben Cooper made the decision to play the song, but only five seconds of it and present it in a news context, as he consulted with Director of Radio Graham Ellis and Director-General Tony Hall. In a statement, Hall said it would be wrong to censor the song in spite of the campaign. “I understand the concerns about this campaign. I personally believe it is distasteful and inappropriate,” Hall said. “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.”
In a later post on the About the BBC blog, Cooper said there were two sides to this debate. “On one side there is the understandable anger of large numbers of people who are appalled by this campaign,” Cooper said. “On the other there is the question of whether the chart show – which has run since the birth of Radio 1 in 1967 – can ignore a high new entry which clearly reflects the views of a big enough portion of the record buying public to propel it up the charts. Above all, in the middle of this furore is a grieving family.”
Cooper added that banning the record would risk further publicity for the campaign and may complicate a delicate situation.
Reaction to this decision was mixed. The former Conservative MP Louise Mensch, in an interview with the BBC World Service programme Newshour, said the BBC created a huge news story over a tiny issue, and that Thatcher would not have wanted the record censored. “She stood for free market and free expression, and of course they should play it in full,” Mensch said. “The right to offend [and] the right to be annoying is a fundamental part of a free society. She would take it as a tribute and I think it’s antithetical to her memory to censor it.”
In an interview with The Guardian, the chair of the Commons’ Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the Conservative MP John Whittingdale, said the BBC made the right decision. “I would have been very unhappy if the chart show was used as to make a political point, not to mention the issue of taste,” Whttingdale said. “On the other hand it would have been odd if it didn’t mention it. But putting it into context, I think, on balance, it is a sensible way of dealing with it.”
The Official Chart is in the position of reflecting the musical interests of the different parts of the British public, and this rise had become a part of it. However, this, like the policies of Baroness Thatcher, will continue to be debated long after she is buried next week.