LONDON – The BBC said Friday it will play just five seconds of “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead” on its weekly radio chart show after the song surged toward the No. 1 spot following the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Opponents of the “Iron Lady” launched an Internet campaign to push the classic from the “The Wizard of Oz” to No. 1 after Thatcher died of a stroke Monday at age 87. The song was riding at No. 3 on Friday, closing the gap on the chart leader and behind by just 12,000 copies.
But the state-funded BBC, the world’s largest broadcaster, said it would play a brief extract on the Radio 1 chart show Sunday — the traditional slot when the weekly charts are revealed — following complaints that the release is tasteless and offensive.
Radio 1 Controller Ben Cooper said he had been “caught between a rock and a hard place” over the decision. “Nobody at Radio 1 wishes to cause offense, but nor do I believe that we can ignore the song in the chart show.”
The BBC’s new director general, Tony Hall, said: “I understand the concerns about this campaign. I personally believe it is distasteful and inappropriate.
“However, I do believe it would be wrong to ban the song outright as free speech is an important principle and a ban would only give it more publicity. We have agreed that we won’t be playing the song in full, rather treating it as a news story and playing a short extract to put it in context,” he said.
Fans of Thatcher, a Conservative icon in Britain, have deplored the campaign to get the song to No. 1 and urged the BBC not to play it ahead of her high-profile funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral next Wednesday in London. They have also launched a countercampaign encouraging people to download an obscure punk song called “I’m In Love With Margaret Thatcher.”
“This is an attempt to manipulate the charts by people trying to make a political point,” Conservative Party lawmaker John Whittingdale, who chairs Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport Committee, told The Daily Mail newspaper. “Most people find that offensive and deeply insensitive, and for that reason it would be better if the BBC did not play it.”
He later backed the way the BBC had decided to handle the issue.
The rightwing Daily Mail as well as The Daily Telegraph have led the call to have the song banned by the BBC. The Mail called it an “insult to Maggie.”
Police were braced Saturday for a mass “party” staged by Thatcher opponents in London’s Trafalgar Square to celebrate her death. London Mayor Boris Johnson said authorities were prepared for potential violence, after trouble erupted at several impromptu street celebrations earlier last week. Any unrest is likely to feed concerns about security at the Iron Lady’s funeral, which will be attended by 2,000 guests, including many political and world figures.
Songs previously banned by the BBC include “Je T’aime . . . Moi Non Plus” by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin in 1969, “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols in 1977 and “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood in 1983.
Baroness Thatcher has proved as polarizing in death as she was in life.
The state is sparing no expense on her funeral, with world leaders past and present on the 2,000-strong guest list, including Queen Elizabeth II and all surviving U.S. presidents. But opponents of Thatcher, whom they accuse of destroying British industry and society with her radical free-market economic policies, staged rowdy parties on the night of her death.
Her official biographer, Charles Moore, whose authorized account of her life will be published immediately after the funeral, accused the BBC itself of trying to promote the song. Conservatives have long claimed the BBC has a leftwing bias, which the broadcaster denies.