Late on Friday my editor at the Observer called and asked me to dash off a few words on what was wrong with the Mail and some Conservative MPs demanding that the BBC ban 'Ding, dong the witch is dead', a Munchkin chorus, from The Wizard of Oz. I was stuck on a train to Glasgow, but how could I resist?
The partially successful attempt to stop the BBC playing a clip from a 1939 children's film is one of the most surreal cases of censorship I have seen. Right wingers were not demanding that the BBC blacklist the song because it was pornographic or libellous. The lyrics the merry Munchkins chirruped were irrelevant to them. They were censoring because they disapproved of the motives of the people who had bought the song, not because of the content of the song itself. That the BBC went along for the most part with them showed how quickly its new director-general would fold under political pressure. That the Mail was prepared to demand a ban, showed that the right could be as politically correct as the left. I assumed that the Mail would never again be able to ask for freedom of speech on its own behalf, but I underestimated the thickness of its brass neck, and within days it was calling for the liberty to speak and write without a shadow of a blush on its face.
I duly filed a piece for the Observer saying that I and many other who opposed Mrs Thatcher felt uneasy about celebrating her death. Her supporters had a good case when they said that the protests were simultaneously childish and grotesque. But as soon as they censored, they lost the argument.
On cue, an email arrived from Russia Today, Putin's English language propaganda station. Everyone who goes along with the denial of human rights in the West, the Leveson inquiry in Britain or any double-standard in a democracy should think hard about its implications.
I am a producer on Russia Today TV network, a 24 hour news channel broadcasting in most parts of the world. We are talking today about BBC radio not playing the witch song (actually then it was changed to 5 seconds of it only) and are looking for guests with opinions and i came across your story and i thought it was wonderful and quite opinionated. So, i was wondering if there is a chance we could ask you to talk to us about your views LIVE today, in the evening. We are talking about freedom of speech, and i think this is what your article is about.
I told her I didn't work for Putin and neither should she. The naïve may wonder about her motives. Why would the debased journalists of a mafia state want to highlight the absurd and ham-fisted attempts of the British Right to determine what songs the BBC could play? In 2010 Reporters Without Borders ranked Russia 140th out of 178 countries in its Press Freedom Index. Opposition politicians cannot gain access to the mainstream media. The Net is censored. Journalists are imprisoned and murdered on occasion. Surely, Russia has no interest in upholding freedom of speech?
Nor does it. Russia, like every other dictatorship, wants to show that freedom is a sham. The so-called “free world” is not free at all, it tells its subjugated peoples. Its politicians are no different from your politicians. They ban and control as do we, and then hypocritically criticise us. At least we are honest.
Attacks on freedom of speech in Britain are therefore doubly damned: they deny our right to argue and investigate; and they are used by dictatorial regimes to deny those same rights to their citizens.
Apparently William Hague told the Cabinet that repressive leaders the world over would throw Leveson in our diplomats' faces whenever Britain tried to protest against abuses of human rights. (And he spoke before Parliament sought to extend press regulation to cover bloggers on the Web – just like Putin.) And, of course, they will.
As the British fight their nasty little culture wars, and indulge their pathetic desire to determine what can and cannot be said, they should remember that somewhere over the rainbow, someone is watching.