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There’s a simple trick to discover what people find offensive – just ask

Singers Kirsty MacColl and Shane MacGowan with with toy guns and an inflatable Santa in a festive scenario, circa 1987
The Pogues’ raucous Fairytale of New York is now a “genuine contender” for Christmas number one, following singer Shane MacGowan's death last Thursday - Tim Roney/Hulton Archive

Could a 36-year-old anthem be this year’s surprise Christmas number one? According to chart bosses, The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York is now a “genuine contender” for the coveted top spot, following the death of singer Shane MacGowan last Thursday. A campaign started by fans is already pushing the track to the top of the UK iTunes chart.

Of course, many of us will be listening to the new censored version when we switch on our radios. You’ll remember that the raucous folk song was deemed offensive well before being offended became a raison d’être, with Top of the Pops first deciding to censor it in 1987, and again in 1992, when the word “faggot” had to be turned into “haggard”.

Since then, media outlets have reacted as erratically and whimsically as the fashion world does with fur to the “problematic” song, with everyone from ITV, the BBC, and Ireland’s state broadcaster RTÉ vacillating between the unexpurgated version, the bleeped-out version, and an alternative “family friendly” version recorded for the Marvel soundtrack of the 2022 short film The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special.

Thank goodness, then, for Boom Radio, which has adopted what can only be described as a wildly common-sensical approach – and asked its listeners whether they find the original version offensive.

A whopping 91 per cent said “no”, and asked that the song should be played in its original form.

Explaining how context was everything, Phil Riley, co-founder of the radio station aimed at baby boomers, said that while their grown-up audience recognised “the potential for offence and that language and attitudes have moved on in their lifetimes”, some contentious lyrics from the past “actually illustrate the degree of welcome change.”

Given the same principle applies across the arts, might it be an idea for us to stop the knee-jerk censorship and cancellations based on a handful of Twitter dissenters and cowardice, ditch the warnings that “people might find the following offensive” – and just ask people if they actually do?

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