Seconds out 

12 April 2013

Merely days into his new job as BBC Director-General, Tony Hall gets confronted with a “mini-crisis” which would arguably have been less toxic if there hadn’t been that recent spot of bother involving Newsnight, Jimmy Savile and the previous incumbent of the Director-General post. So all eyes are now on Hall to see what he makes of something that superficially seems to be a relatively trivial matter, albeit one with very politically-charged overtones at the current time.

So what’s this “Ding Dong” crisis all about, and is it really important enough to even warrant calling it something like Dingdonggate?

The BBC’s decision to downplay (or attempt to downplay) what’s essentially just a children’s song from a classic movie is largely due to the ‘distasteful’ promotional campaign that surrounded it, as explained by Radio 1 Controller Ben Cooper here. It’s certainly true that if you really wanted to make a political statement about the passing of Margaret Thatcher, another song with much stronger socio-political connections, eg. Ghost Town by The Specials could have been chosen for a campaign, though the sing-along novelty factor undoubtedly helped to generate much more publicity (and sales) compared to choosing something like The Specials (which could also sell some copies due to the surrounding publicity anyhow).

Of course this is different again from Radio 1 DJ Mike Read (and the BBC) banning Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood after belatedly realising what the lyrics were actually referring to, because “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” is totally innocuous within its own original context, meaning that an official ban would be nigh-on difficult to justify under the circumstances. To quote Mr. Cooper: “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”.

A good summary of the major issues surrounding the song – both positive and negative – can be found in this New Statesman article; the choice of song may be puerile to a fault for more than one reason, but the song and its accompanying political baggage most importantly now has legs, and has ironically gained a great deal of publicity courtesy of the Daily Express and Daily Mail newspapers, in turn followed up by significant news attention from other sources.

But this leads us to a potential problem. If all 49 seconds’ worth of the song had been simply played without editorial comment, then there was still a chance that the Radio 1 Chart Show’s young and potentially impressionable listeners might have dismissed the song as just a bandwagon-jumping novelty track as is frequently the case with a fair number of old tracks reentering the download chart as a typical consequence of being played on television or when used as a soundtrack to popular YouTube videos, as opposed to something else that the “establishment broadcaster” has censored on the basis of an editorial decision.

Therefore based on what has happened so far, a short clip of a short song could be more likely to cause listeners to question and discover for themselves any other reason(s) as to why the song is in the charts if it isn’t being played in full, because attempting to play down/ban or ignore something frequently creates exactly the opposite effect, which is precisely what happened to Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax”, selling over a million copies as a consequence of a BBC ban.

Of course any song’s potential to trigger political dissent under the current political climate must be privately causing a few anxious moments amongst government ministers. The politics surrounding Margaret Thatcher have always been divisive even if her main achievement was paradoxically to preserve a united front for the Tories over many years (something largely built on perceived success which is always a fragile context, as Thatcher discovered to her cost when she was ousted as leader in 1990), not to mention any potential side-effects caused by dredging up ghosts from the past may currently have on the Conservative Party and any simmering dissatisfaction in turn directed towards its current leader, David Cameron, let alone the effect it may also have on its opponents and on the public-at-large.

Given the very nature of the BBC as a public body, the reality is that any decision relating to whether or not to play “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” would have inevitably involved a great deal of collective discussion and head-scratching at the BBC, frequently erring on the side of caution and compromise unless the Director-General makes a personal overriding decision, but at the end of the day it’s still the current DG Tony Hall that will stand or fall on what happens next, especially given what had happened to George Entwistle as well as Hall himself giving a personal seal of approval to this decision. (Well he had to really, given all the surrounding publicity.)

Viewed purely from a BBC PR angle, a compromise solution superficially appears be the best way forward without unduly threatening free speech; the campaign still has some form of exposure without any official form of endorsement and the right wing press gets short-term satisfaction from having an effect (so to speak), taking some heat off the BBC for a few moments at least, even if what happens next may still be hugely unpredictable due to the many complex factors surrounding this case. Of course Mr. Hall is most likely well aware of the significant risk(s) surrounding any form of editorial contextulisation, but has presumably accepted those risk(s) at face value on the basis that numerous other factors could also be equally responsible for anything that might subsequently happen as a consequence.

And we should be careful not to attach too much importance to this decision; it’s only a chart show after all, with Radio 1’s music policy confining itself to a narrow selection of tracks at all other times regardless of what’s happening in the wider world. Purely because of Radio 1’s specific remit, Tony Hall may be able to sleep soundly in the short term, even if someone outside of the BBC may later find an excuse to cause his departure if any campaign surrounding the song builds further in momentum and those unpredictable consequences just happen to rear their collective heads, but there again just being the BBC’s Director-General is a very high risk job in the current political climate.

Ding dong indeed.

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