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BBC in hot seat as anti-Margaret Thatcher song climbs chart

By Raphael Satter

Associated Press

Published: Friday, April 12 2013 2:31 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this June 12, 1987 file photo, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher waves to supporters from Conservative Party headquarters in London after claiming victory in Britain's general election. Ex-spokesman Tim Bell says that Thatcher has died. She was 87. Bell said the woman known to friends and foes as "the Iron Lady" passed away Monday morning, April 8, 2013.

Gerald Penny, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

LONDON — Opponents of the late Margaret Thatcher are taking a kind of musical revenge on the former prime minister, pushing the song "Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead" up the British charts in a posthumous protest over her polarizing policies.

By Friday the online campaign had propelled the "Wizard of Oz" song to No. 1 on British iTunes and into the top five of the music chart used by the BBC to compile its weekly radio countdown.

David Karpf, who studies online campaigns, said the chart battle was an example of a new kind of protest enabled by social media — "A way for people to signal protest en masse without shouting from the rooftops."

"It's a form of symbolic protest," he said.

The unusual campaign has caused a headache for the BBC. With the ditty near the top of the charts, the broadcaster faced the prospect of airing the words "The Wicked Witch is Dead!" on its Sunday countdown show, just days before Thatcher's funeral, scheduled for Wednesday.

Some lawmakers from Thatcher's Conservative Party had called for the publicly funded broadcaster to drop the song, while others warned that such a move would mean censoring a form of dissent.

The BBC, caught between allegations of censorship and complaints about poor taste, split the difference, saying it would broadcast only part of the tune — along with a news item explaining why it was there.

BBC director-general Tony Hall said that while the broadcaster found the campaign "distasteful and inappropriate," he and other executives had decided the song should not be banned — but should not be broadcast in full, either.

"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 in a statement.

Ben Cooper, controller of Radio 1 — which broadcasts the chart show — said the clip would be "four or five" seconds long, but did not say what part of the song would be aired.

The controversy — which made the front pages of many national newspapers — serves as a strange musical coda to Thatcher's time in office. The woman known to many as the Iron Lady was in power for 11 years, during which she wrenched Britain from the economic doldrums and successfully retook the Falkland Islands after Argentina's 1982 invasion.

Many still resent Thatcher for her uncompromising stance against the country's labor unions and what they saw as her inhumanity toward the working class. The campaign to send "Ding Dong!" to the top of the charts began soon after she died Monday of a stroke at London's Ritz Hotel.

Fans of Margaret Thatcher fought back by dusting off a 1980 punk song called "I'm in Love with Margaret Thatcher," in a tongue-in-cheek bid to compete.

This is not the first time activists have harnessed the Internet to mete out musical punishment. In 2009, a Facebook-driven campaign ensured the anti-establishment group Rage Against the Machine beat a Simon Cowell-backed pop singer to the coveted Christmas No. 1 slot in Britain.

Karpf said the pro- and anti-Thatcher song race was a new variant on what he called a "buycott" — where competing groups use mass purchases to stake out political or cultural positions.

Thatcher supporters were split on whether the song should be played. Some attacked it as gratuitously disrespectful, while others said the right to protest had to be protected.

Louise Mensch, a former Conservative lawmaker and prominent Conservative voice on Twitter, said in a message posted to the site that the Iron Lady would have wanted the song played.

"Thatcher stood for freedom," she wrote.

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