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19 November 2020

There is something odd about the BBC’s decision-making over Fairytale of New York

There is no need for the corporation to have a specific policy for one song when well-established guidelines are already in place.

By Stephen Bush

Why does the BBC have an official policy on whether to play the original version of the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl’s “Fairytale of New York” or the 1992 version by the same artists, in which a homophobic slur is replaced with the words “you’re cheap and you’re haggard”?

The broadcaster has confirmed that Radio 1 will use the 1992 version (recorded by MacColl for Top of the Pops, which aired before the watershed), while Radio 2 will use the original 1987 version and on BBC 6Music, individual disc jockeys will decide which to play on a case-by-case basis.

It is bluntly unclear to me why this is the case. In the UK there is a well-established practice for adjudicating what is and isn’t “family-friendly” language: indeed, that is precisely why the 1992 recording exists. Ofcom, the regulator, receives complaints about language used on-air and investigates by conducting qualitative and quantitative research among representative samples of the population. Where the language concerns a particular group of people, a similar exercise also takes place – so the offensiveness of a series of terms about various Christian denominations would not be measured by researching only the concerns of the public as a whole, who are largely mystified by such terms, but also the concerns of those Christian groups.

Thanks to this process, we have a good idea of the majority position of the British people on the issue, and we are fortunate that there is a fairly high degree of consensus. Most people value the 9pm watershed – the cut-off time on television, before which offensive language, violent images and other scenes that may disturb or upset children or those who wish to avoid such material, cannot be shown – and find the use of offensive language on radio, a more intimate medium, more, not less offensive than on television. As a result, radio presenters and producers are urged to consider whether children may be listening, when making decisions such as selecting music.

This is what gives rise to the so-called “radio edit”: versions of songs in which words are either muted or replaced. For example, if you listen to Avril Lavigne’s “Happy Ending” on the radio, the word “shit” is edited out.

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One of the other valuable tasks that Ofcom does is to produce a list of swear words, profanities and insults, and rank how audiences feel about them, from “milder words” to the “strongest words”. The slur in “Fairytale of New York” is consistently placed among “the strongest words”  – alongside the C-word, the four-lettered F-word, the M-word (someone who has intimate physical relations with their mother) and the N-word.

Now, of course, you may be more comfortable with some of those words than others. Frankly there are some words on the “strongest words” list that I am wholly relaxed with: I have to admit the M-word always makes me giggle rather than wince. But what works and is valuable about Ofcom’s process is that it is not drawn from any one person or group of people working in broadcasting but through a serious, data-led investigation on what the average person thinks and feels when they hear certain words, and what they want from their broadcasters.

Now there are three coherent and respectable positions here. The first is for maximal free speech, which says people can value the watershed as much as they like, and they can favour a more cautious approach on radio, but that’s just tough. The second is to say that Ofcom’s process is a good way to appease the majority of people, who want to avoid their children, or themselves, coming into contact with slurs they do not wish for them to hear, without broadcasting executives, journalists or whoever having to play a game of “guess the strength of the slur”. The third is to say that the concerns of society as a whole are neither here nor there, and that Ofcom’s process should include only people within the affected groups. (On the latter, it might be difficult to find a focus group of people who are personally targeted by the M-word, but that is a question for another time.)

What is not a respectable position is to support Ofcom’s approach unless it’s a song you really like or a slur you aren’t particularly bothered by. The BBC does not, as far as I am aware, have a policy under which the use of the uncensored F-word in songs that are being played at a time that children may be listening, is prohibited on Radio 1, A-OK on Radio 2, and up to the discretion of presenters on 6Music. It seems to me that any interpretation of Ofcom’s guidance produces a clear answer on this topic: there is a recording by the same artist that does not use the offensive word in question, that version should be used on radio, regardless of the station. 

During a recent row about the corporation’s use of certain words, I wrote that I was worried that the BBC was acting as if the N-word had magical properties. It used that particular word in a way it would not have used another profanity: broadcasting the N-word, in full, while quoting the words of a hit-and-run driver, when all the audience needed to know, pre-watershed, was that the attacker had explicitly identified the race of their victim.

Now the BBC is doing the same for “Fairytale of New York”. There is no reason to give greater latitude, or to announce a specific policy on this homophobic slur, than for any of the other words on Ofcom’s “strongest words” list. The BBC is not announcing a specific policy around songs featuring the M-word, or extending or announcing station-wide latitude on that issue, and the notion that this perennial entry on Ofcom’s strongest words list is any different strikes me as plainly and simply homophobic.

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