Free Speech vs. News Judgment: Margaret Thatcher's death


This week former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher passed away and it has spawned mixed reactions from people in the United Kingdom and around the world. Here in the United States, conservatives have lauded her achievements and framed her as historical conservative figure similar to Ronald Reagan. The accuracy of this comparison is up for debate. Regardless, it is interesting to see how some of Thatcher's opponents in the United Kingdom are using her death to start a protest movement.

The British music charts have seen a rise in the popularity of the song "Ding, Dong the Witch Is Dead" from the movie The Wizard of Oz. In fact, it is sold so much on iTunes that it has risen to near the top of the British music charts. This has placed BBC Radio 1, the BBC's official chart rundown show, in a tough position. Should it play the song as it always does with top songs or should it refrain from playing the song--when everyone knows the Witch is referring to Thatcher--just three days before her funeral. It's a rather macabre proposition, but does the BBC have an obligation to play the song?



I found this issue to be interesting because it begs the question as to where to draw the line in reporting news when it has the potential to be insensitive or inappropriate.
In this case, the BBC show usually plays the songs at the top of the charts. Ostensibly, the purpose of the show is to inform viewers what the popular contemporary songs are and what they sound like. But in this case, "Ding, Dong the Witch Is Dead" has been given a "false popularity." It was purposely driven to the top of the charts in order to send a political message. It seems absurd to think that a song from an 70 year old movie would just coincidentally rise to the top of the charts. It is clearly being driven there as a result of a protest movement.

http://www.gstatic.com/hostedimg/ecc0de89887279a6_landing


So taking into account the dubious nature of the song's chart ranking, should the BBC refrain from playing the song? I mean it's clear that playing a song celebrating the "Witch's" death just days before the funeral is insensitive, especially since this is a former Prime Minister. No matter what you think of her politics, when is enough enough? Proper news judgment requires a weighing of news value versus its potential for insensitivity. Here the news value seems low because the song isn't popular as a song but being driven there as a form of protest. Despite, these problems, the answer is still clear: Yes.

First, I must note that I am looking at this through an American perspective, and I understand the close relationship between the government and the BBC. Still, I just do not see how the BBC cannot play the song without making a statement that it will refuse to cover those who criticize the government. The song is popular and is selling. It does not matter why the song is popular. It is. I mean all songs are popular for various reasons. Some may be popular for their political messages. If the BBC is going to refuse to play the song in this case, will it vet future songs to make sure they have no potentially insensitive messages. I mean that is incompatible with free speech. Further, it does not matter that this BBC chart show is likely not a hard news outlet. This goes to the heart of free speech. Many times the most powerful and influential messages are those spread through popular culture. There just does not seem to be a way not play this song without showing some form of speech censorship.

Additionally, I think it is interesting that the BBC chart show would potentially shy away from this. Perhaps, it is a negative implication of free speech but a salacious and controversial issue like this seems like it would draw viewers to the show. I know that many privately owned corporate television outlets in the United States would be all over this. They would have little qualms about playing the song so long as it would bring in viewers. Just look at all the coverage of comparisons of President Barack Obama to former dictators Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. No matter how inaccurate and insensitive these comparisons are, you still saw images of protestors with signs depicting Obama with a Hitler mustache, as if Obama was responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people.

UPDATE: The BBC announced Friday that it will not ban the song "Ding, Dong The Witch Is Dead" from the airwaves. However, in a statement from  show Controller Ben Cooper, the show is not going to give the song the traditional treatment:
I’ve therefore decided exceptionally that we should treat the rise of the song, based as it is on a political campaign to denigrate Lady Thatcher’s memory, as a news story. So we will play a brief excerpt of it in a short news report during the show which explains to our audience why a 70-year-old song is at the top of the charts. Most of them are too young to remember Lady Thatcher and many will be baffled by the sound of the Munchkins from the Wizard of Oz. To ban the record from our airwaves completely would risk giving the campaign the oxygen of further publicity and might inflame an already delicate situation.