In Depth

BBC says it has a duty to play 'Ding Dong' song - but does it?

Broadcaster's argument for playing anti-Thatcher song contradicts its history of censorship

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THE BBC has argued it is obliged to play Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead because the pop charts are a "historical and factual" account of what the public is buying. That sounds like a decent enough reason to broadcast the Judy Garland song sent rocketing up the charts by anti-Thatcher protestors. Decent, that is, until you examine the corporation's track record for censoring and banning popular records.

The fact is the Beeb has a long and (in)glorious history of ignoring the public's taste and either pulling songs off the air or changing their lyrics. Its reasons have ranged from an excess of sentimentality to sexual content, bad language and – a tricky one, this – the mere fact that the song's title or lyrics might be construed as offensive in the context of current events and wars in particular.

The most famous example of the BBC imposing a ban on a hit record is The Sex Pistols' God Save the Queen in 1977. To be fair, the song was a censor's dream. The title was bitterly ironic, the lyrics were overtly offensive - "made you a moron" – Jamie Reid's cut-and-paste cover art was deemed outrageous and the timing of its release during the Queen's Silver Jubilee was (rightly) construed as a raised finger to the British establishment.

But it doesn't take an incendiary record like God Save the Queen to stir the BBC into action. When Britain goes to war, the most ineffectual song can find itself in the crosshairs – excuse the phrase – of the corporation's censors.

In 1982, the New Zealand group Split Enz released a song called Six Months in a Leaky Boat, a catchy tune inspired by the time it took to sail from England to the Antipodes. Unluckily for the band, Margaret Thatcher had recently dispatched another fleet of English boats on a long sea voyage and BBC bosses decided the song would be an inappropriate soundtrack to Britain's efforts to reclaim the Falklands.

Nine years later, a harmless pop song by Lulu called Boom Bang-a-Bang was banned by the BBC during another war, this time in the Persian Gulf. The broadcaster believed the title – a reference to Lulu's heartbeat – could be mistaken for the sound of exploding munitions. The same fate befell 10CC's Rubber Bullets and Cutting Crew's I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight.

You could argue that protecting the public's ears from pop songs that may appear offensive against the backdrop of a war is a sensible precaution for a publicly-funded broadcaster. Yet it seems a curious sensibility given that the soldiers doing the actual fighting often use pop music to prepare themselves for combat, a phenomenon laid bare in the 2004 documentary Soundtrack to War.

The BBC doesn't just ban records in war time, either. Frankie Goes to Hollywood's single Relax was at No. 6 on the chart when the BBC pulled the plug due to its "sexual references". The Kinks' Lola was banned until the overtly commercial reference to Coca-Cola was changed to cherry Cola. And the Shamen's Ebeneezer Goode was removed from playlists because its chorus implied – stated would be a better description - that 'E' – the drug ecstasy – was "good".

The BBC says it may ask a reporter to "explain the context" if it plays Ding Dong the Witch is Dead on Sunday's Radio One chart show. That seems like a limp compromise that will please neither side of the argument. And you might ask why the broadcaster didn't get a reporter to "explain the context" of God Save the Queen back in 1977.

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