Richard Elliott makes a case for free expression over the current Top 40 debate.
A kerfuffle has emerged in the British tabloids over the last few days over the BBC’s decision to potentially give airtime to the song ‘Ding Dong, the Witch is dead’, originally featured in the 1930’s classic The Wizard of Oz, on its Radio 1 Top 40 programme this coming weekend. The song’s revived success is in connection with a campaign promoting sales of the song via download, to celebrate the death of Baroness Margaret Thatcher, which was announced earlier this week. The Daily Mail’s reaction to this has been to lambast the BBC’s directorship as “insulting” and to further allude to the ‘Left-wing bias’ that the BBC is so often accused of.
I am the least likely person to jump to the defence, sword out of scabbard, of ochlocracy, or ‘mob rule’. In this particular example, also, I find the sentiment of celebrating the death of an elderly woman, whether her politics are found to be disagreeable or not, morally repugnant; but I contend that it is absolutely essential that the BBC play the song, should it be included in the Top 40 chart. I would even go so far as to call it cowardice, should the song be abbreviated for fear of a backlash in public opinion.
My reasons for this contention are threefold.
Many people have paid for a downloaded copy of this song. This payment has been made, if not wholly then at least in part, in good faith that the song will be aired, should it make the Top 40. To deny airplay to the song would be a breach of provision of the service (the airplay of the song) to those who have paid for it.
The BBC can only be accused of making a political statement if they do not play the song. If they play the song, as they would with any other song which would make the Top 40, then they are simply acting in accordance with consumer sales. It is an apolitical move, regardless of the content of the particular song.
Although there is an intrinsically ochlocratic sentiment to the Top 40 anyway, to deny airplay of this song at the behest of public and media pressure would be an even more debased form of ochlocracy: a tyranny of the majority, where the opinion of the mob is able to deprive others of hearing the song for themselves, where freedom of expression is sacrificed in the name of ‘good taste’.
I would rather have it that one could put faith in people to be offered the opportunity to hear the song for themselves, inclusive of the context, and decide for themselves whether they agree or not with the sentiment of the anti-Thatcher crowd who have voted the song to be included in the Top 40.
Whenever a situation of free expression such as this arises, whether the contention of the choice of expression is found to be offensive or not, it is worth bearing in mind the words of Euripides in The Suppliants, which John Milton included as the preface to his defense of free speech, Areopagitica:
This is true liberty, when free-born men,
Having to advise the public, may speak free,
Which he who can, and will, deserves high praise;
Who neither can, nor will, may hold his peace:
What can be juster in a state than this?