Baby, it’s too cold outside to simply ban Christmas songs you don’t like

Social and cultural change is most effective when it employs persuasion as opposed to heavy-handed tools such as censorship

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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 (CBSC) upheld the complaint of one woman in Newfoundland who took offence to lyrics containing a derogatory reference to gay men.

Critics of CBSC 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 [CBSC] 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 CBSC’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 CBSC 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 CBSC 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.” The arguments make for compelling reading.

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.

Troy Media columnist Peter Menzies is a former newspaper publisher and vice-chair of the CRTC.

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Peter Menzies

Peter Menzies spent three decades as a working journalist and newspaper executive, most notably with the Calgary Herald where he served as its editorial page editor, editor in chief and, finally, publisher.
Following his newspaper career, he spent close to 10 years as a member of the Canadian Radio-television Commission, initially in a part-time capacity followed by four years as regional commissioner for Alberta and the Northwest Territories and then four more as Vice-Chair of Telecommunications.
In the past, he has consulted on educational and media projects with the Fraser Institute and wrote frequently on media matters and the impact of the Internet on society during his time as a Senior Fellow with the think tank Cardus. Following the conclusion of his time with the CRTC, he resumed writing regular commentary for Troy Media through which his work has been published in the Victoria Times-Colonist, Winnipeg Free Press, Hamilton Spectator, Halifax Chronicle Herald and many others. He also writes on media and communications issues regularly for Convivium Magazine, The Globe & Mail, National Post and Toronto Star and advises tech companies.

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