The removal from air play of the newly controversial 1940s hit Baby, It’s Cold Outside represents a noteworthy shift in the way media companies defend artistic freedom in the eight years since the Dire Straits song Money for Nothing was banned in Canada.
The Dire Straits tune, a monster 1985 hit, was forbidden from broadcast in January 2011 when the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council upheld the complaint of one woman in Newfoundland who took offence to lyrics containing a derogatory reference to gay men.
Critics of the council mocked it for its inability to contemplate satire.
Dire Straits keyboardist Guy Fletcher had this to say on his website:
“I reckon Canada could ban about 75 per cent of all records ever made. … A part of me understands the decision (but) you can and should be allowed to write a song or poem and use language that is or has been in use by real people in everyday life … MFN does not ‘celebrate’ a slur.
“In it, Mark (Knopfler) uses real everyday U.S. street language to describe how a numbskull worker in a hardware department … feels about a video being shown. The fact that the (council) can make a ruling such as this, completely missing the context in which it’s used, says rather a lot about the society in which we live.”
At least two radio stations — in Edmonton and Halifax — went to the barricades to defend their and Dire Straits’ artistic freedom. Sensing the public outcry against what many viewed as a neo-puritanical frenzy, they not only refused to comply with the council’s ruling, they rebelled openly by playing the unedited version of the song repeatedly for one-hour protest sessions.
Calm and the nation’s reputation for reasonableness were eventually restored when the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) had the council take another look at and eventually revise its decision.
Since then, many — if not all — stations have adopted an updated version of the Dire Straits tune that’s less likely to prompt complaints.
It’s difficult not to notice how corporate behaviour has evolved in the years since.
In the Money For Nothing controversy, the complainant initially asked that CHOZ-FM in St. John’s stop playing the song.
I don’t recall what their defence was but, way back then, the response was generally: “If you don’t like it, change the channel” (although no doubt in more elegant terms).
Unable to get satisfaction, the complainant took the matter up with the council and the story unfolded from there.
In the matter of Baby, It’s Cold Outside — considered until now to be a Christmas holiday classic — major media offered little resistance in the defence of artistic freedom.
It’s unclear to me who was first to complain or first to capitulate. But in rapid succession, CBC, Rogers, Bell Media and Corus — the nation’s largest broadcasters — all announced they were taking the 74-year-old tune off their approved playlists.
There has been some public debate since, largely (and wisely) restricted to female commentators discussing whether the song glorifies sexual harassment and “rape culture.”
But at the end of the day, it appears that private broadcasters moved very quickly to avoid controversy and therefore maintain shareholder value. CBC’s motives as articulated were similar and appeared to take a better-safe-than-sorry line.
This, it appears, is our new reality. I take no position on the appropriateness of Baby, It’s Cold Outside — a song I generally found irritating and avoided on its own terms. But I do subscribe to the view that social and cultural change is most effective when it employs persuasion as opposed to heavy-handed tools such as censorship. There be many, many dragons down that path.
Fortunately, while the same media that define themselves as vital defenders of democracy are showing a new-found preference for flight instead of fight in that battle, their listeners have not.
On Tuesday, CBC Music reversed it decision, recommending that those who disapprove of the song just change the channel if they don’t like it.
Order has been restored.
Peter Menzies is a former vice-chair of the CRTC.