Close to home
Radio 1's short-lived decision to ban the word "faggot" from the classic Fairytale of New York by the Pogues has triggered the most one-sided audience reaction of any story since I've been editor of Newsbeat. Many hundreds of texts, e-mails and online comments have come in - berating the network for "political correctness". Radio 1 originally defended its decision by pointing out that it is a word "members of our audience find offensive”… and then by late afternoon on Tuesday, controller Andy Parfitt overturned the ban - admitting the edit had been wrong, while praising his music team for being "vigilant" about possible offence from lyrics.
It raises some interesting dilemmas for us though: without Radio 1's 10 million plus audience Newsbeat wouldn't exist. But what happens when the station itself IS the news? Does this cramp our journalistic vigour or make us feel we shouldn't take on "the mother ship”? I don't think it does - nor should it ever do so. If we argue that our job is to report the news without fair or favour for other organisations, why should Radio 1 be exempt from that rule? I think pulling our punches would be failing our listeners - Radio 1's listeners. That's just my view.
But - some texters pointed out - if Radio 1 has banned the word "faggot" why are you, Newsbeat, using it? In fact, the word has been used more times in our news coverage of the story than it would have been in the handful of plays the track would have got between now and Christmas. They've got a good point: but we can't tell the story or inform the debate on it all - unless we do use the word.
There's another issue: did Newsbeat's prominent coverage of the story effectively pressurize the network into making the U-turn - and is that right or wrong? We would argue we covered the story in an impartial way, not as a campaign - the audience responded angrily and in volume and we reflected that on our coverage… but if we hadn't covered it in the first place, would it all have blown over? If Radio 1 had defended their original position earlier in public (they didn't - allowing opponents a free hit), would some of the critics have been won over and would the row have fizzled out? It is the job of BBC journalists to harry the networks that give them airtime?
There's a larger story too: the pressure that regulators are, rightly or wrongly, putting on broadcasters to avoid offensive words and phrases in music and the greater public scrutiny that broadcasters are under. There's a big debate going on about violence, lyrical content and sexism in hip-hop lyrics and homophobia in reggae dancehall. Again, it's for you to decide whether this scrutiny is right or wrong - an infringement of artistic creativity or a justified defence of minority interests - or perhaps just meddling by journalists? That's a debate for another day but this debate is helping to shape the landscape of modern music broadcasting.
And is the boss of Radio 1, Andy Parfitt, still talking to me? Amazingly… yes, he is! I think…