Pogues – Fairytale of New York – Homophobic Hypocrisy

The BBC needs to develop a consistent policy to cover all forms of bigoted language in song lyrics.

The Guardian – London, UK – Comment Is Free – 19 December 2007

I am perplexed, angered and surprised by the huge storm of controversy over the sweet Christmas pop song, Fairytale of New York, by the delightful Pogues and Kirsty MacColl. The furore is not much about the use of the word “faggot” in the lyrics, but the fact that BBC Radio 1 decided to bleep out the f-word. Critics decried it as censorship and an attack on free speech.

A BBC online poll asked the public whether the word faggot should be deleted. Over 95% said no. They believe that a song using the f-word as an insult is acceptable. Faced with this deluge of criticism, Radio 1 caved in and rescinded its bleep-out. This looks like capitulation to mass pressure, rather than a rational, consistent policy decision. I doubt the BBC would have done this u-turn if the lyrics had used the insult n*gger.

I am gob-smacked. This storm in a teacup makes world headlines, yet Pakistan’s massacre of hundreds of civilians in Baluchistan last week has been ignored by the world’s media and has provoked no protests at all. The same silence and indifference has greeted the mass arrest and torture of student leaders in Iran this week. Compared to these grave human rights abuses, this fuss over a Christmas pop song seems trivial and obscene.

It also diverts attention away from really serious, hard-core homophobia, such as the Jamaican dancehall songs that call for the murder of gay people and from high street record stores and radio stations that promote this murder music.

I did not initiate the controversy about the Pogues Christmas song. As a gay human rights campaigner I was contacted by journalists and asked to comment on the BBC’s decision, which I did.

Regardless of the way it has been reported, the main focus of my comments has not been to condemn the use of the word faggot, but the BBC’s double standards when it comes to homophobic language, as compared to racist language. It tolerates the former but never the latter. I have simply called for a consistent, uniform policy to apply to all bigoted, hateful words.

What concerns me most is not so much the cavalier singing of the f-word as the hypocritical members of the public who criticised Radio 1’s original decision to bleep it out. Most of these critics wouldn’t accept the use of the words n*gger, p*ki, y*d or sp*stic as insults. For the sake of consistency, either faggot should be unacceptable too, or these other bigoted words should also be permitted. It’s the inconsistency that grates.

Having said all this, it is also important to remember that in Fairytale of New York, whatever the intention of the lyric writers, the word faggot is being sung as an insult – “you cheap lousy faggot” – alongside abusive words like scumbag and maggot. In this disparaging context, it is difficult to feel comfortable about its usage.

But the real, crunch issue is, I reiterate, the double-standards. I challenge those who defend the use of the word faggot in these lyrics to state publicly that they would also defend the right of white singers to use word n*gger as a term of abuse in a song. They won’t and that makes them cowardly homophobic hypocrites.

It is shameful that Radio 1 and other radio and TV stations are willing to play Fairytale of New York with the word faggot included, when they would never tolerate the equivalent racist epithets. It shows that they don’t take homophobic language as seriously as racist language. We queers are yet again being sent to the back of the bus.

What is needed is a consistent policy covering all bigoted insults, so that anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic, anti-Muslim and sexist lyrics are all treated in the same way.

I don’t favour heavy-handed bans. I draw the line at words that incite violence and murder, not at language that is merely prejudiced. That is why the Stop Murder Music campaign did not target homophobic singers; only those who advocated the killing of queers. It is why I have opposed the prosecution of homophobic Christian preachers like Harry Hammond and the anti-gay Muslim leader, Iqbal Sacranie.

Nevertheless, the free speech fundamentalists will, as usual, denounce me as a totalitarian and insist that there should be no constraints at all on any form of homophobic or other hate speech and music. They want total freedom to commit libel and incite genocide. They don’t agree that the exercise of freedom speech should have any qualifications, responsibilities or limits.

I challenge these critics to state whether they support, in the name of free speech:

1) The repeal of the incitement to murder laws;

2) The abolition of the laws against inciting racial hatred;

3) The right of the BNP to incite the killing of black, Asian, Muslim, gay and Jewish people;

4) The right to spread false, libellous claims that a person is a paedophile or child murderer.

Perhaps the critics will state where they stand on these “free speech” issues? If they support all of the above, then at least they are consistent and deserve some respect. If not, they are hypocrites.

NB: This is a slightly expanded version of my Guardian Comment is Free article, which had to be cut to meet the designated word limit.