Centre for Media Research





Thatcher’s death and the media: ding dongs, sing songs and eulogies

Prof. Máire Messenger Davies reflects on this week’s coverage of the Margaret Thatcher’s death.

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I’ve recently joined Facebook and I felt it was an appropriate medium to voice a few thoughts on hearing of the death of Margaret Thatcher. I wrote:

‘Need to acknowledge the death of Margaret Thatcher and the torrent of media comment.’ The prospect of trying to make sense of it all struck me as daunting, and I added: ‘Good luck sorting that lot out, pundits.’

It was revealing (to me anyway) that my first written comment on hearing of the death of a person with whose politics I deeply disagreed, was not ‘ding dong’, (nor ‘tramp the dirt down’, as offered by several other FB Friends). And, with due respect to grieving Thatcher relatives and friends, neither was my response sympathetic. My first response was to note the ‘torrent of media comment,’ which shows how thoroughly indoctrinated a career in Media Studies has made me.

It could be one of those moments when people remember where they were when they heard the news. On the morning of Monday 8th April, I had heard on BBC radio news that there had been a massive, almost 9/11 type explosion in Damascus, and I thought – that’s going to be the lead at 1 pm, make sure you tune in to find out more. So I did – and heard that Margaret Thatcher had died. On with the TV, to get the BBC TV News version of it and there was nothing about Damascus: the whole bulletin was devoted to Margaret Thatcher.

The initial TV coverage seemed flat and predictable; most of it, including live pieces to camera by reporters such as Nick Robinson, consisted of obviously pre-prepared packages. So we got childhood in Grantham grocery; Cambridge; Denis; election as MP, twins, first woman leader of Tories, first woman prime minister, St Francis of Assisi, Falklands, miners’ strike, Irish hunger strikers, Brighton bomb, City ‘big bang’, tearful departure, and so on – all with carefully selected archive footage. It was clearly acknowledged in these pre-prepared packages that it was her own colleagues, in her own Tory cabinet, who finally brought her down in 1990 – cue Geoffrey Howe and his broken cricket bat.

But no-one would think that this had been the case from the even greater torrent, the positive tsunami, of hagiography from Tory spokespersons and the right-wing press that has followed, and which continues.

Ding dong about the ding dong song

All I can do – since this is not a scholarly content analysis (and good luck to future scholars attempting that) – is to point out the highlights of the media coverage that most caught my own attention.  First, it’s impossible to ignore the ‘ding dong’ about the dingdong song – the song sung by the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz (1939) to announce that Dorothy’s house, uprooted in the Kansas hurricane, has landed on the wicked witch of the west, and killed her. A group of anti-Thatcherites decided to organise a mass download of this song (written by Yip Harburg, a ‘left winger’ who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era in Hollywood, one of many ironic aspects to this affair), so that the song would get into the top ten of the download charts. This meant it would have to be played on the BBC’s Radio 1 Chart countdown on Sunday afternoon.

Daily Telegraph seized this opportunity to criticize the BBC:

‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead, a song from the Wizard of Oz, has sold 20,000 copies this week …Friends of Lady Thatcher said the corporation would be guilty of a “serious dereliction of duty” if it aired the song.’

The Daily Mail front page was headed: BBC WITCH SONG INSULT TO MAGGIE and reported: ‘in a decision that will cause widespread outrage, the ding dong song will feature in Radio 1’s Sunday evening Top 40 countdown.’ Many on Twitter drew attention to the irony that ‘the Daily Mail that campaigned for press freedom over ‪Leveson wants the BBC to censor something’. The Sun even found 91 and 94 year olds, who had played Munchkins in the movie, to express disapproval, in a front page splash headed ‘Wizard of Oz stars speak:  MUNCHKIN FURY AT MAGGIE DING DONG SONG’.

The BBC, mindful of recent scandals, came up with a compromise, which like many compromises, doesn’t seem to have pleased anybody – but, as they’ve noted before, when both sides attack you, (cue Nick Cohen, The Observer, vs the Mail Online) you know you’re doing something right. The Radio 1 controller announced they would play a short clip from the song with an introduction from a newsreader explaining the context of the controversy. This seems to me to be an extremely astute move on the part of the BBC; the controversy is there, partly because the press are making so much of it, so they can’t ignore it. True to Reithian ideals of informing and educating, they decided to give listeners a short media education lesson, putting the song in context. Good for them.

‘All but a state funeral’

Plans for the funeral, with full military honours similar to that for the Queen Mother, were revealed; at the same time calls for ’personal respect’ continued. But if, as we are constantly reminded by her supporters, (and interestingly also Ken Livingstone, on PM on Tuesday) that she’s basically just ‘somebody’s mother and daughter’, many questioned the point of giving her a funeral so different from the average mother’s. The grandiosity of the funeral implies a great national leader – in which case, we have to comment on her effectiveness as a national leader, and, even for those who supported her, as such, she is found wanting. Peter Oborne, in the Daily Telegraph, 10th April, 2013, described the decision to have ‘all but a state funeral’ for Lady Thatcher, a worrying ‘constitutional innovation.’ He quoted with approval the Mirror’s description of her as the nation’s ‘most divisive prime minister’ and pointed out:

‘Defenders of next week’s funeral arrangements say that she was a “transformational” prime minister. This is true. But so was Clement Attlee, who introduced the welfare system and the National Health Service, thus fundamentally changing the connection between state and individual. Yet the Queen did not attend Mr Attlee’s funeral, a quiet affair in Temple Church near Westminster.… all one can do now is hope that next week’s funeral is not allowed to turn into a triumphalist Tory occasion that inflicts permanent damage on the monarchy and also our system of government.’

Oborne reminded his readers: ‘The dockers dipped the cranes when Churchill’s coffin came up the Thames in 1965. Would they have dipped their cranes for Margaret Thatcher?’  He knew the answer to this: No, they wouldn’t, not least because there are no dockers left in London’s Docklands; they have been replaced by the Canary Wharf financial district.

Many drew attention to the rewriting of history of the 1970s and 80s, including John Prescott in the Mirror, Saturday 13th April. But the best journalistically factual correction to this rewriting was a reprint of a Seamus Milne article from May 2009, the anniversary of her election in 1979. (And, on the point of effective journalism, what a curiously prominent silence there has been from her 1980s ally in helping to reduce media pluralism, Rupert Murdoch): Milne pointed out some facts and figures:

‘You’d never guess from all this fevered snobbery and retrospective catastrophism [about Britain in the 1970s] that average economic growth in Britain in the dismal 1970s, at 2.4% a year, was almost exactly the same as in the sunny Thatcherite 1980s – though a good deal more fairly distributed – and significantly higher than in the free-market boom years of the last two decades. Nor would you imagine that there was far greater equality and social mobility than after Thatcher got to work. Or that, while industrial conflict was often sharp in the 1970s, there was nothing to match the violence of the riots and industrial confrontations of Thatcher’s Britain.’

Thatcher the woman

Inevitably there has been reference to her feminism, or lack of it, and the undoubted fact that she was a very exceptional woman. Feminist Deborah Orr acknowledged:

‘she was the outstanding female politician of her generation, of any generation. Like it or not, that’s just how it was. Thatcher, the politician, was a nightmare. Thatcher, the woman, was more exceptional than any human being perhaps should ever dare to be.’

Self proclaimed feminist, ex-Tory MP Louise Mensch gave Twitterati a good laugh when she noted the almost perfectly equal division, rare in statistical polling, between 52% (pro) and 48% (anti) comments about Thatcher, as evidence that she ‘wasn’t divisive.’ There’s nothing you can do about this kind of idiocy except sigh.

Dancing in the street and leaping in the air

There have been celebrations and dancing in the street in Glasgow and in Trafalgar Square, which I felt no inclination to join. Quoting my own Facebook comments again: for me, the key moment when the ‘witch’ (if we must use the sexist labels of 17th century religious primitivism) ‘died’ was when she resigned, back in 1990, when many who are expressing authoritative opinions now, including members of the Government, were children, and could have no meaningful memory of her. Her resignation was the moment when those of us who had lived through the social depredations that she introduced, who had always opposed her politically, and who had disliked profoundly her personal, bullying style, felt it was appropriate to rejoice. And I did rejoice; I was teaching at Boston University in Boston, USA at the time; it was, aptly enough, Thanksgiving Day, and I was so moved by hearing the news on the 8 am bulletin on National Public Radio (it was 1 pm in Britain), that I tried to leap in the air and fell out of bed. Most of my American colleagues did not share my reaction. She was – and still is – a celebrity figure to them, the Hollywood Iron Lady, portrayed by Meryl Streep. Not to me.

But now, as a much older woman than my leaping self in Boston, I don’t feel it’s appropriate to rejoice at the death of someone who’d been in failing health for years, and who had undergone the awful tragedy of losing her once powerful memory, something that’s also happened to my own 94 year old mother, and a fate that could be awaiting the rest of us. An unexpectedly touching and sensitive piece by Russell Brand in The Guardian described seeing Thatcher in the Temple Gardens being helped to water the roses.

He concluded:

‘The blunt, pathetic reality today is that a little old lady has died, who in the winter of her life had to water roses alone under police supervision. If you behave like there’s no such thing as society, in the end there isn’t.’

Coming back to the personal theme of mother and child: my favourite media exchange has to be Glenda Jackson’s powerful, theatrical, oblivious (to braying Tory insults and to her Labour colleagues’ absence), speech in the House of Commons debate on Wednesday, and her more conservative son, Dan’s Hodges’ response to it in the Daily Telegraph.

Said Glenda:

“There was a heinous social, economic and spiritual damage wreaked upon this country, upon my constituency and my constituents. … not only in London but across the whole country in metropolitan areas, where every single shop doorway, every single night, became the bedroom, the living room, the bathroom for the homeless.”

Said Dan, responding to a barrage of critical tweets telling him how disapprovingly he should think about this:

‘I’ll tell you what I think. I think the House of Commons assembled on Wednesday to honour a woman of conviction. And like it or not, a woman of conviction was what it got to see. Am I Glenda Jackson’s son? Yes, I am.’

Good for Dan. And to conclude with the Munchkin theme, a last, more hopeful word to writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, in the Observer, 14th April, drawing attention to more positive aspects of British identity, as he and Danny Boyle had done in the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony:

‘It’s time to stop going on about the witch being dead and start imagining what might lie over the rainbow.’

The yellow brick road beckons….

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