Outrage as BBC censors homophobic and misogynist slurs from ‘Fairytale of New York’

Claire Dowens discusses the BBC's controversial move to censor the iconic Christmas tune 'Fairytale of New York'.

Claire Maggie Dowens
9th December 2020
Deemed as one of the nation’s favourite festive songs, The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’ featuring Kirsty MacColl has stolen the hearts of millions for its synchronous infusion of uplifting melodies and gritty lyrics depicting an intoxicating story of broken dreams, abandoned hopes and lost love. According to experts, these powerful themes are the leading factors behind the public’s top-spot ranking, as they reflect a realistic experience of a British Christmas filled with one too many holiday spirits and frosted by countless family bust-ups. However, a recent decision announced by BBC Radio 1 to air a censored version of the song, has sparked a controversial debate into whether this hard-hitting realism exposes discriminatory abuse based on issues of sexual orientation and gender; ultimately transgressing the social norms of our modern-day society. 

Since its release in 1987, The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’ has been hurled into the centre of an ongoing culture war regarding conflicting views of whether there should be a censorship of lyrics contained in its all too familiar second verse, which includes the words “faggot” and “slut”. Whilst some have merely considered that the harsh context of the song indicates that these words are essential in characterising a story of an abusive relationship in a bygone era, others have argued that they are incredibly offensive due to their modern usage as misogynistic and homophobic slurs. In recent years, these opposing arguments have escalated dramatically following the progress of feminist and LGBTQ movements which have edged closer towards achieving gender equality and ending violence, sexism and discrimination which many individuals of these communities have encountered. In 2019, BBC Radio presenter Alex Dyke issued a radical announcement via Twitter, stating that he was “making a stand for the good of the people” by refusing to play the hit song, describing it as an “offensive pile of downmarket chav bilge.” 

In an effort to overcome the offence and upset which listeners have experienced through the songs derogatory language, the BBC has taken the recent decision to play a censored version on its mainstream platform, Radio 1; an alternative recording provided by the record label in which MacColl’s line, “you cheap, lousy faggot” is replaced with “you’re cheap and you’re haggard” as well as the word “slut” which is muted. However, the 1987 original will still continue to be played on Radio 2 and Radio 6 Music DJs will have the choice of playing either version. Elaborating further, a BBC spokesman stated: "We know the song is considered a Christmas classic and we will continue to play it this year, with our radio stations choosing the version of the song most relevant for their audience."

The inconsistency of this policy has inevitably transformed homophobia and misogyny into generational issues and has had an adverse effect on younger listeners, instead inciting outrage. Alex Hood, a regular Radio 1 listener has voiced his opinion 'as a young person', commenting that “it is incredibly frustrating to see that this initiative hasn’t been implemented as a blanket rule across all of the BBC radio stations.” He went on to say that the BBC’s choice of continuing to play “the uncensored version of the track on Radio 2 and Radio 6 Music” has resulted in “Radio 1 listeners, who predominantly fall into the Gen Z bracket” being “cast as snowflakes, hypersensitive and infantile” and distracts “from a debate [which] should be about respecting those offended by the slurs, regardless of age.” 

The BBC has also faced extreme backlash for its policymaking following a flood of complaints from thousands of other listeners who consider the censoring of the song’s lyrics as 'political correctness gone mad.' A few famous faces that have joined forces in the verbal retaliation include rock star Nick Cave, who has accused the BBC of “mutilating” the song and actor-turned-right-wing-commentator Laurence Fox, who tweeted: “Here we go again. The cultural commissars at the @bbc are telling you what is and isn’t appropriate for your ignorant little ears. Wouldn’t it be nice if we sent the (proper) version to the top of the charts? #DefundTheBBC.” In support of the broadcaster’s action, The Pogues have since retweeted Fox’s outspoken post, responding to the actor: “F*** off you little herrenvolk s***e.” (The term “herrenvolk” was used in Nazi Germany to describe the supposed “master race”). 

In a holiday season which is devoted to spreading love, joy and kindness to one another, such angry outbursts could have been easily avoided if all UK radio stations had made the unanimous decision to play the censored version of the classic song. Whilst “The Fairytale of New York was made in a moment of time” where such lyrics were not as strongly implicated with aspects of discrimination, “times change” and we are now living in a modern-day society where the language of these lyrics is defined as socially unacceptable. Perhaps next Christmas this fairy-tale woven nightmare will be obliterated, and people of all different backgrounds will have their “happily ever after” - here’s hoping! 

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