On the stupid, ugly Margaret Thatcher ‘protest song’: why the BBC should play it, and why it shouldn’t

BBC gates
What should the BBC do? I have no idea

Regarding the nasty Margaret Thatcher “protest song”. I find myself conflicted, so I thought I’d write something tortured and unsatisfying that manages to anger both sides of the debate.

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. If you’ve bought a copy of the song, you may well be an idiot. It’s grimly misogynistic (“witch”? Seriously?); it’s not even slightly funny; and the idea of celebrating the death of an elderly, senile woman who has been out of power for 23 years is both sick and stupid. As Norman Geras says:

Her death wasn’t instrumental in ending her period of power. So joy in seeing the back of her in that sense doesn’t come into it… when Margaret Thatcher died she was an old and ill woman, with people around her who cared about her. To take pleasure at this is an inhumanity that does no credit to those who so indulge themselves. They forget the simplest and most enduring of human truths for an ugly temporary pleasure.

Exactly. Don’t pretend that crowing at an old woman’s death is anything other than crowing. You’re not speaking truth to power or daringly backing a rebellion; you’re making an easy and cheap joke, cosily swaddled in the mainstream of popular thought, while a body is still warm. Congratulate yourself for it if you like, but I won’t.

But it is what it is. Twenty thousand or so people have displayed risk indicators for idiocy and bought this stupid song. Now, the BBC has a decision to make, about whether to play the song in its top 40 on Sunday.

My own instinct this morning was that they should play it. As Toby Young says, none of us has a right not to be offended. But let’s not make this a straightforward battle over free speech, because it’s not as simple as that. The BBC is in the same position that a newspaper website is when it decides to publish or not publish offensive comments: it is the one hosting the content, and it gets to decide if it’s appropriate or not. The “free speech” being exercised when it decides to play (or not play) the song isn’t the free speech of the protest-song buyers, it’s the free speech of the BBC. And it would not be a terrible blow for freedom if Tony Hall decided that he doesn’t want to play along with a stupid, ugly stunt chuckling about the death of a frail old woman.

This is complicated by the fact that it’s a publicly funded institution and that there is immense pressure on the BBC from newspapers not to play the song. The fact that the Beeb is under this pressure makes the free speech case stronger: as Toby says, next time, the pressure might come from other angles, and we might not like the result.

I’ve had a startlingly angry row with someone in this office this morning, in which I said that the Beeb should play the damn song, sick and nasty as it is, and my opponent reacted as though I’d suggested displaying the flayed corpses of children on Tower Bridge. There is real strength of feeling over this, real hurt and anger, not just a kneejerk moment of opportunity to attack the BBC, and it’s worth recognising that. I don’t think the analogy is quite fair, but my opponent said that if, say, someone had released a song laughing at the deaths of suicide-bombing victims in Syria or something, and it somehow got to number four, it wouldn’t be ridiculous for the BBC to say this is bad taste and we don’t want to support it.

Similarly, there is a not-ridiculous case to be made that the BBC bowing to pressure to ban a song for what could be described as political reasons, even if most people would think they’re reasons of taste, sets an alarming precedent.

Yes, I know I’ve come to no conclusions here. Yes, I know this is mealy-mouthed handwringing of the worst stereotyped knit-your-own-muesli kind. But I just wanted people on both sides to acknowledge that it’s not a simple “free speech” or “sick filth” issue. Whatever call the BBC makes, it’s going to catch hell from somebody, and with good reason. I’m just glad I’m not Tony Hall.

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