Did the BBC secretly cancel Róisín Murphy? Its Radio 6 Music network has denied removing the Wicklow-born musician from its airwaves after controversy erupted when a screenshot emerged of a Facebook post from her private account in which she wrote about puberty blockers.
The prescribing of these blockers to young people with gender-identity issues has become a subject of serious debate in scientific and medical circles, including in the UK, where it has been suspended except in limited and specific circumstances. “Puberty blockers are f***ed, absolutely desolate, big pharma laughing all the way to the bank. Little mixed-up kids are vulnerable and need to be protected, that’s just true,” Murphy wrote. “Please don’t call me a terf [trans-exclusionary radical feminist], please don’t keep using that word against women.”
In the ensuing furore, Murphy said she was sorry her comments had “been directly hurtful to many of you” but did not withdraw them. She has been accused by some of fuelling transphobia and betraying the LGBTQ fans who form an important part of her audience. Others defended her right to express an opinion on a subject of legitimate public debate. Predictable lines were drawn and shots fired by all sides on social-media platforms. When Murphy’s new album, Hit Parade, was released some days later, a highly unusual (to put it mildly) review in the Guardian awarded five stars for what the reviewer described as “a masterful album with an ugly stain”. The piece was amended after publication to “better reflect” and “clarify” what Murphy had said and what a scientific study had found.
It was reported (but not confirmed) that Murphy’s label, Ninja Tune, would not be promoting Hit Parade. Some gigs were cancelled. People who claimed to be lifelong fans said they would be boycotting the album. People who admitted they’d never heard of Murphy claimed to be buying it in solidarity. All of this is depressingly familiar, but it should be remembered that everyone speaking their mind, changing their business plans or altering their retail choices was exercising their right to free expression.
It’s different for a public-service broadcaster. Radio 6 Music has acknowledged it replaced a planned Artist Collection special on Murphy on September 18th with a collection devoted to the rapper Little Simz, a change that it claimed was not unusual and dovetailed better with its spoken-word output ahead of National Poetry Day, in October. The broadcaster also said that some older tracks by Murphy had been played since the row erupted. And it insisted she had not been removed from schedules.
Whatever about the Artist Collection issue, the latter claim is not credible, and by making it the BBC brings itself into disrepute. Hit Parade was released on September 8th. The Radio 6 Music playlists for the two weeks from September 11th up to this weekend include a range of artists from different genres and different generations, as you would expect from a station that champions the best of experimental pop. The September 11th-17th list included the likes of Aphex Twin, Alison Goldfrapp and Chemical Brothers. This week’s version has Corinne Bailey Rae and Hot Chip. You don’t have to be an expert on Murphy’s work to know that she would normally slot in comfortably alongside these names. And she’s the only one of them who had a brand-new, best-selling album out that week. Plus, it should be said, Hit Parade is a thrilling, adventurous record that you would expect to hear on heavy rotation on Radio 6 Music. So where is it?
The Daily Telegraph quoted “BBC insiders” as saying the album will feature on future radio schedules “in due course”, which seems an astonishingly languid approach to new music from a broadcaster that’s supposed to be promoting it. The veteran journalist and broadcaster Andrew Neil, never one to shy from an ideological dogfight with his former employers at Broadcasting House, has called on BBC Verify to ascertain the truth of the matter. Verify was set up this year “to address the growing threat of disinformation and build trust with audiences by transparently showing how BBC journalists know the information they are reporting”.
If the BBC believes it’s wrong to broadcast Róisín Murphy’s music at the moment, it should say so and explain why. From George Formby to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, it has banned plenty of music over the course of its history – a practice it claimed to have ended in the early 2000s. This looks like a more insidious and therefore more troubling form of censorship of an artist for holding views that are clearly not outside the mainstream of acceptable discourse and whose music has nothing to do with her personal beliefs.