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BBC, pogue mahone

As if the BBC's cack-handed censorship of the Pogues' Fairytale of New York wasn't bad enough, now it seems Beeb bosses want to sanitise every record they play.

Shirley Dent

Topics Free Speech

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‘It’s absolute nonsense. Really, this is too ridiculous. Shane has written the most beautiful song and these characters live, they really live, and you have such sympathy for them… These are a couple of characters who are not in the first flush of youth, I wouldn’t have thought. They are what they are, this is the way they speak.’

Over 95 per cent of voters in the BBC’s own online poll agreed with Jean McColl, mother of the late singer Kirsty MacColl, that the Beeb’s decision to edit out ‘faggot’ and ‘slut’ from her daughter’s duet on The Pogues’ Christmas belter, A Fairytale of New York, was ‘too ridiculous’. Within hours, the BBC reinstated the uncut version.

I think Jean MacColl had it exactly right in her comment about the song and its characters, who ‘live, really live’. Part of the charm of A Fairytale of New York, and the reason it’s held in such affection, is that it pulls out the threads of those lives, from the excitement of emigrants caught up in love and possibilities (‘They’ve got cars big as bars / They’ve got rivers of gold’) to dashed dreams and the very human solace of being together through virtuoso slanging matches and still-clung-to aspirations. You believe in the story and the characters because in the verve and spit of the language you hear the struggle of the screaming slut and lousy maggot to be better than they are. It’s enough to break your heart as you belt it out in unison with the record: ‘You took my dreams from me / When I first found you / I kept them with me babe / I put them with my own / Can’t make it all alone/I’ve built my dreams around you.’

So why mess with a song that expresses universal sentiments of hope, despair, love and anger so beautifully?

The reaction of many to the faggot fadeout has been to attack the crazy censors and to bemoan ‘political correctness gone mad’. Such sentiments are fair enough, but to some extent they miss the point. I believe in free speech without equivocation. Racists and homophobes should have the right to shout ‘nigger’ and ‘faggot’ from the rooftops if they wish – but I reserve the right to detest them for it and attack their ideas. In other words, the issue of free speech is really about being able to work out our relationships, who we are and where we are going for ourselves, rather than according to the rules of some higher authority.

What really alarmed me about the Fairytale fiasco was not the lame masking of potentially offensive language but the comments of BBC Radio 1 controller Andy Parfitt when he was forced to justify the station’s embarrassing volte face. The usual hand-wringing about not condoning homophobic lyrics or ‘bullying of any kind’ were rehearsed before po-faced Parfitt stated: ‘In the context of this song, I do not feel that there is any negative intent behind the use of the words.’ It shouldn’t be Parfitt’s place to decide whether we can hear a record in full based on his feelings about its ‘negative intent’.

But it was a throwaway comment by Parfitt about how the lyrics came to be bleeped that was gobsmacking. Apparently the decision was taken ‘some months ago’ as part of a review of older records played on the station. Now this needs some explanation. Does this mean that there is a systematic trawl going on of records from back-in-the-day and any lyrics deemed nasty or offensive are also getting the nip-and-tuck treatment? I think we should be told. It sounds like a crazy sub-Nineteen Eighty-Four plot. But this muting of music history is very much part of today’s anti-human tendencies.

We are constantly sold the scare story of how the public (ie, us) is a potentially queer-bashing, race-hating lynch mob, forever on the brink. The result is that we hardly dare look at our own history any more because we could be opening a can of worms. So those in authority – such as the BBC’s surreptitious censors – have come up with a wheeze to rewrite history as: ‘We were all nice to each other. The end.’ We all know that’s nonsense. But this lie is not just about rewriting history as ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’. What is really offensive about retrospectively editing the historical record (by literally editing some historic records) is that the knockabout language of ordinary people is fingered and paraded as the pinnacle of every old-fashioned prejudice and social ill, from racism to homophobia.

This treats us as idiots with collective amnesia. It tells downright lies about where ideas such as racism and homophobia come from and whose interests such ideas serve. There are far worse evils to confront than good old-fashioned slug-it-out-with-abandon trading of insults, where a word such as ‘faggot’ is part of a name-calling armoury often uncoupled from its original meaning. Who hasn’t said ‘bitch’, ‘bastard’ or ‘bugger’ without thinking about its exact and offensive meaning?

When we have a sense of ourselves as potent and capable people, such insults are just so much water off a duck’s back. It is only when we come to think of ourselves as cowering and timid – an idea the authorities seem only too happy to promote – that such name-calling appears threatening. The idea that we are all vulnerable and need to be protected by powerful authorities, or petty censors like Andy Parfitt, is one fairytale that definitely should be deleted.

Shirley Dent is communications director of the Institute of Ideas and author, with Jason Whittaker, of Radical Blake. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK)).

Previously on spiked

Alan Miller discussed the sacking of American shock jock Don Imus. Maria Grasso looked at the use of the term gay at Oxford University. Nathalie Rothschild declared that while Michael Richards was wrong to racially abuse his hecklers, she still loved Cosmo Kramer. Brendan O’Neill concluded that there was much confusion over definitions of free speech and how far it should go. Alex Hochuli said that the removal of an ad-campaign after one complaint highlighted the pervasive tyranny of the individual. Or read more at: spiked issue Free Speech

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech

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