United Kingdom: Britain at War

How music was “restricted” during the Falkland and Golf War

Speech by Ph.D. Martin Cloonan, at the 1st Freemuse World conference in 1998

 What I would like to do is to give you a taste of censorship in Britain. Britain is quite often seen as a place where censorship doesn’t occur but it certainly does. I will explain how the law works in Britain and then talk about broadcasting regulations and then come on to talking about the Golf war. Let me start with the legal situation in Britain. The legal situation in Britain is quite complicated because the constituent four countries in Britain have slightly differing laws about censorship. However the most important law which covers England and Wales is called the 1959 Obscene Publication Act. This covers obscene articles of all sorts, books, films, records etc.

The law bans material which would deprave and corrupt its likely audience. There have been cases where music has been held to have that capacity. It is a very controversial piece of legislation. It’s been on since 1959. There have been numerous debates about what to do with it. Let me just give you a taste of what happens should you be in the unfortunate position to be a musician who has become victim of this law. I will give you an example from 1991.

The police in Nottingham raided a record company called Earache Records which is a death metal and speed metal organisation. They raided the record plant and took away a lot of stock. What happens is that the police will raid and take your stock away. But they have to list the stock that they take away, and this is where it becomes very interesting. A list of stock ceased from Earache Records included stock by bands called The Filthy Christians, Carcass and various things. But it also has some wonderful things where the police get slightly paranoid so there are copies of newspapers among other things. My very favourite one is that they ceased an Alice Cooper poster complete with ‘blue-tack’. So they can presumably stick it on the wall in the police station. That material was held for about 16 months before it was returned to Earache Records, it was not actually prosecuted. That is the kind of thing that happens.

The situation in Britain is also complicated by the fact that censorship is not centralised. Local councils still have power over film and over licensing of venues and so on. Regional police forces have a great deal of autonomy, there is no national police force. So to an extent the type of censorship you are subject to in Britain depends on where you live. Most importantly of all, the British State has farmed out the broadcasting to the broadcasters themselves. Whilst there are legal restrictions upon what broadcasters can broadcast, essentially broadcasting is run by the interpretation of various rules.

The broadcasters in Britain are covered by the law but also their own regulations. Both the commercial stations and the state owned BBC Network have obligations not to offend taste and decency, this is written into their regulations. OK, so what’s taste and decency? I think we heard this morning that there is a very important role played by interpreters of regulations. Obviously at times of national crisis the definition of taste and decency tends to narrow a little. This is most obviously the case in times of war. One of the things that is quite obvious with censorship is that it is inexplicably linked to contemporary events. There is a sort of censorial climate which goes up and down. Certainly in times of war the censorial hate will come up. What has happened in Britain is that whenever there has been war, censorship has increased.

For example if you go back to the First World War there were censorship of musical songs. During the Second World War obviously the BBC was not particularly keen on playing German music. There were bans during the Falklands war for certain records. I think it would be fair to say that records that criticised the government policy during the Falklands war did not get a great deal of airplay. Of course the longest running saga of censorship in contemporary Britain was the war in Ireland. We heard this morning of Paul McCartney getting banned and there were various bands and records about the situation in Ireland.

So by the time we get to the Golf war in the early 1990s you can see the broadcasters have a history of being sensitive about certain material. I think it is probably true to say that it is not a matter in Britain of the central state saying, “you can’t play this”. It is a matter of broadcasters saying, “we’re supporting our boys in this one, we’re not going to rock the boat”. The broadcasters has a somewhat ambiguous role during the Golf war. At one level, a whole BBC Radio station was devoted to coverage of the Golf war, minute by minute, 24 hours a day. They kind of separated the Golf war from main stream broadcasting. I think what effectively happened was that popular entertainment, popular music was not allowed to impinge on the war. Even though Radio One, the main broadcasting station, went out to the Golf and broadcasted from there, there was still a sort of mental separation that popular entertainment must carry on regardless of the war. So what happened was that during the run up to the Golf war on commercial radio, on Jazz FM, a man called Gilles Peterson decided that as the United Nations deadline for action against Iraq was coming close he would play two hours of peace music. Fairly impartial, one would have thought, just to play music calling for peace. The result of that was that he was sacked, he was deemed to have broken broadcast regulations for displaying political partiality. Independent commercial radio in Britain is supervised by the Radio Authority. When complaints were made to the authority about the sacking of Gilles Peterson for playing peace music they said that it was an internal matter, it is just what the station decides itself. However, they upheld complaints against Jazz FM for not being politically impartial.

Meanwhile back at Radio One and back at the BBC a famous list of records was produced. What happened was that this list of records was not a ban as such it was just a list of records produced which BBC producers and DJ’s might like to consider carefully before playing. This is not a ban, it was produced by local radio within BBC. Just a few examples from this list. It says, “Be very careful about playing these records during the Golf war”: ABBA: Waterloo, Kate Bush: Army Dreamers, José Feliciano: Light my Fire, Queen: Killer Queen, 10CC: Rubber Bullets. I think in retrospect one of the things that this ridiculous list of records did, because it got quite a lot of press, was actually to make the war thing less important. Whatever the persons making this list intended I think in Britain it made the war seem less serious than it was.

We heard some talk today about musicians having a history of resistance. During the Golf war in Britain I think it was very hard to resist the war and not be tainted with being a supporter of Saddam Hussein. It was very hard politically to do that. There was a group called Musicians Against the War, which was formed. It got almost no press and I think apart from holding a singing outside the BBC to protest against this list, its overall impact I would say was nil. There were other sorts of petty acts of censorship during the Golf war. During the annual Brit Awards for music in 1991 the artists who appeared on that show were told not to mention the war. Artists who broke that rule, including people like Lisa Stansfield, who said when she was receiving the award, “This award is very nice but it would be a much better reward for me if the war stopped”, received a great deal of media hostility straight away. Sinead O’Connor also spoke out against the war and boycotted the Brit Awards that year. She found that instead of a video of Nothing compares to you being shown, that they showed a video of Whitney Houston singing Star spangled banner as a direct insult to Sinead O’Connor who had been protesting against having the American National Anthem played at a concert. So all sorts of petty spite going on.

Within the record industry they knuckled down as well, saying we don’t want to rock the boat here, we don’t want to offend people. Forget the fact that the British Army is out there slaughtering Iraqis. So they asked bands to change their names, Massive Attack became Massive, The Happy Mondays have a song called Loose Fit which talks about blowing up an airport base, that line was dropped from the song when the single was released. A band called Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine had a record called Blood sports for all which is a critique of racism within the British Army. The record company made them swap that and put it on the B-side of the single during the Golf war. So there are various sorts of petty censorship going on. So I think that overall this is not the sort of central state saying, “you must do this”, there is a kind of atmosphere where you don’t rock the boat. The context of all this is that the BBC was being accused of being left wing in the 1980s. The Conservative Party was not very keen on the BBC at times. So by the time the Golf war came about, the BBC was very sensitive about what it did during the war. For example when asked whether they would play the Rolling Stones record High Wire, which is a critique of arms dealers, the head of Radio One at that point said, “No, we won’t play it because we don’t want to be the leftie BBC fighting the enemies of freedom again”. So there was a kind of attack on the BBC. At the same time the commercial networks had just been subject to new legal restraints from the 1990 Broadcast Act. So they kind of censor themselves anyway and they don’t need the state to tell them.

So I would argue that popular music at its best probably is when it is resisting and being a dissident voice and during the Golf war that voice wasn’t heard at all. I don’t think you have to be a supporter of Saddam Hussein to hope that at least next time popular music might get more voice and get back its radical tradition.

Mr. Martin Cloonan, Ph.D., Researchfellow, University of Stirling, Scotland.

Go to top

1st Freemuse World Conference On Music and Censorship

The 1st Freemuse World Conference on Music and Censorship was held in Copenhagen, Denmark, in November 1998. Among the participants were musicians, reseachers, human rights activists and journalists from all over the world.

Read the speeches as PDF
Read the speeches (98 pages)

Go to top
Home / Resource / United Kingdom: Britain at War