by Andy Ruddock
After much controversy, the BBC last night played a seven second clip of Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead on its traditional Sunday night music chart show. The song had been the subject of an internet campaign to get it to number one on the British charts as a “celebration” of the death of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
BBC Radio 1 controller Ben Cooper said the chart success of the Wizard of Oz track is a historical fact, and invoked this to justify the corporation’s decision to play the short clip accompanied with a news story on the controversy surrounding it. The move tried to placate those who think the song’s popularity is offensive, and others who view it as an expression of free speech.
In any event, the protest has ended up a damp squib: “Ding-Dong!” failed to reach number one, and came in at number two on the charts. Nevertheless, the Ding-Dong! controversy has energised a long running conflict over the purpose of history. In reviewing this debate, an irony emerges: Ding-Dong! downloaders play right into the hands of Thatcherism.
In his study What is History?, E H Carr claimed that seemingly trivial details become historical facts when historians decide that they are worth remembering. Often, these are political decisions, aimed at the future. Certainly, events around Thatcher’s passing are embroiled in a deeply political struggle to secure her legacy, one way or the other.
No-one has made this clearer than British historian Andrew Roberts. Roberts paints Thatcher as that rare historical figure who made change for the better, single-handedly. He credits the erstwhile “Iron Lady” with saving the UK economy, collapsing the Soviet Union and establishing an ideological project that will continue to steer Britain true into the future.
This isn’t surprising coming from the Trustee of the Thatcher Archive. Neither is it surprising that Roberts has been entrusted with the task of preserving Thatcherism. Skilled and popular, Roberts has revived whig history.
His History of the English Speaking Peoples book has been lauded as a brave return to an old idea that social historians have done their best to besmirch: that English history is a story of progress where everybody wins.
Roberts’ views on Thatcher suit the position that the people who matter in history are the great ones who make things happen. Not, then, others who think that downloading from iTunes is political action.
It was precisely this “great person” view that the social historian E.P Thompson sought to overturn in his magisterial book The Making of the English Working Classes. Reviewing the history of English popular dissent, Thompson showed why apparently irrational protests still revealed much about what it was like to experience key historical moments. These feelings are as much a part of history as are the thoughts of queens, kings and prime ministers.
So what would he say about the Ding-Dong! protest?
He certainly wouldn’t dismiss it. According to his research, spontaneous dissent was usually driven by several things. People in the same protest could be there for different reasons, having different aims. Ding-Dong! downloaders probably vary, from those who have well thought out reasons for their action, to others who don’t. Either way, Thompson would say their collective deed says something important about why Thatcher’s death has been a momentous occasion.
But Thompson wouldn’t validate Ding-Dong! downloaders either.
Like Roberts, Thompson, wrote his history with an eye on the present. He worried that commercial media were containing the tradition of English dissent. Surveying the 1960s, he bewailed the lack of ambition he saw among young people to challenge the commercial basis of the mass media, through which political discourse was increasingly channelled.
So, Thompson might well be horrified by the easy conflation of downloading and free speech. Even more so had he been around to witness the synthesis of consumerism and citizenship in British media policy. It’s been widely reported that Thatcherism primarily stressed individualism and individual responsibility. According to Sonia Livingstone and Peter Lunt, these ideas are the cornerstone of UK regulatory approaches. Generally speaking, regulators agree that if people want a richer public culture, then it’s up to audiences to make smart choices. Consumer and citizen are one and the same.
Margaret Thatcher would probably applaud a protest run through the mechanism of the media market. She’d also warn that Ding-Dong! downloaders are responsible for the consequences of their actions.
History might remember Ding-Dong! as proving one of two things: the existence of a basic incivility that only underscores the importance of the Thatcherite conviction that people must be ruled, or else that even her most ardent opponents agreed that expression is about buying stuff. What better tribute?
Dr Andy Ruddock is a senior lecturer for the School of English, Communications and Performance Studies in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University.
This article has also appeared on The Conversation.
From tsunami to transformation
A decade after its devastation by tsunami, much of the Indonesian province of Aceh is … Continue reading From tsunami to transformation
‘Emotional Experiences of Early Parenthood’ project on HiSNet
A new online resource supporting Australian families in early parenthood produced by The Health in … Continue reading ‘Emotional Experiences of Early Parenthood’ project on HiSNet
Tough measures on counterterrorism go hand in hand with grassroots strategy
by Greg Barton Long before the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and the Bali bombings in … Continue reading Tough measures on counterterrorism go hand in hand with grassroots strategy
‘Drought-proofing’ Perth: the long view of Western Australian water
by Ruth Morgan When he visited Perth in 2012, Arizona water specialist Robert Glennon remarked: … Continue reading ‘Drought-proofing’ Perth: the long view of Western Australian water
Australia must prepare for the mother of all hangovers
by Rémy Davison You know Australia’s in trouble when the Reserve Bank cuts interest rates. … Continue reading Australia must prepare for the mother of all hangovers
Explainer: what is halal, and how does certification work?
by James Wong and Julian Millie Halal food certification in Australia has become a contentious … Continue reading Explainer: what is halal, and how does certification work?
Liberal leadership tensions give neglected backbenchers a voice
by Narelle Miragliotta It is difficult to pinpoint a specific reason to explain the leadership … Continue reading Liberal leadership tensions give neglected backbenchers a voice
Australia vote: No ringing endorsement for Abbott
by Zareh Ghazarian When Mr Abbot became prime minister after the 2013 general election, he … Continue reading Australia vote: No ringing endorsement for Abbott
Call for Abstracts: ACFID-Monash Development Conference – Deadline Extended
Monash is co-hosting the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) University Network Conference on June … Continue reading Call for Abstracts: ACFID-Monash Development Conference – Deadline Extended
Monash Journalism grad’s hard yards pay off with Cricket Australia gig
Monash University journalism graduate Aaron Pereira has secured a full-time job at Cricket Australia, working … Continue reading Monash Journalism grad’s hard yards pay off with Cricket Australia gig
Black Saturday research wins national award
Monash researchers have received an award for their groundbreaking work with communities affected by the … Continue reading Black Saturday research wins national award
Applications open for the 2015 CEW Bean Prize
Third-year and Masters Journalism students are encouraged to apply to be part of a unique … Continue reading Applications open for the 2015 CEW Bean Prize