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Former Dire Straits lead singer Mark Knopfler performs during a concert in Barcelona, Spain, on June 13, 2006. (GUSTAU NACARINO/Gustau Nacarino/Reuters)
Former Dire Straits lead singer Mark Knopfler performs during a concert in Barcelona, Spain, on June 13, 2006. (GUSTAU NACARINO/Gustau Nacarino/Reuters)

Talk about money for nothing Add to ...

What's most grand about censorship is how, done well and for long enough, those subjected to it begin to do it for themselves.

Such is the sad tale of Money for Nothing, the fabulous Dire Straits song which was this week pronounced unfit for Canadian ears after a lone woman in Newfoundland complained about the word "faggot" in the lyrics.

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It is a classic Canadian story: Twenty-five years after the song first took off on the charts, one unnamed person who self-identifies as "a member of the LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered) community" hears the song on local radio station OZ FM in St. John's, finds the use of the faggot word "extremely offensive" and complains to the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) about it, the matter eventually assigned to a panel chaired by Gerry Phelan, who may well be the only other Newfoundlander besides the complainant without a robust sense of humour.

The truly great thing is that this is a case of the broadcasters doing it to themselves - self-censorship, in other words, which saves the government or any of its spawn, such as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the bother of doing it for them.

The CBSC is a self-regulating council for private broadcasters which began as a gleam in the eye of another self-regulating group, the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB), a full year after the release of the Dire Straits album, Brothers in Arms, on which the offending song first appeared.

(The CAB basically fell apart last year after a family quarrel, with some TV station operators apparently battling with cable companies that owned other TV stations, and now exists, according to its website, solely to "focus on maintaining certain key functions such as the CBSC.")

LBGT-CBSC-CAB-CRTC: Whatever. One way or another, unofficially or formally, they each proactively perform the tasks of a Big Brother so that He is free to worry his pretty head about more important matters, such as elections.

This is a real danger for those who embark upon self-regulation: Often, so keen do such groups become to avoid attracting government attention or censure that they make decisions so utterly dopey even the fussiest and most conservative government wouldn't have made them. I cannot imagine, for instance, the government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, with his now well-recognized affection for music (and decent singing voice and skill on the piano), banning Money for Nothing, or any other song.

This CBSC panel, for instance, examined the complaint through the prism of the CAB's Code of Ethics and Equitable Portrayal Code, with particular emphasis on clauses dealing with Human Rights, Degrading Material and Language and Terminology.

(All capital letters are the panel's.)

In two painful sections - one entitled, "Whither the Evolution of Language?", the other "The Use of the Word 'Faggot'" - the six members tediously reviewed other CBSC decisions on the use of the word "fag," noted its various benign meanings (cheap cigarettes, a junior who performs duties for a senior in English public schools, and a bundle of twigs or sticks), and even acknowledged that in the case of Money for Nothing, "the word 'faggot', although lightly sarcastic in its application in the song, was not used in a 'sneering, derisive, nasty tone'" as was the case in an earlier decision.

Still and all, the panel found the word, like others, "is one that, even if entirely or marginally acceptable in earlier days, is no longer so." The song, unless edited, was deemed unacceptable for broadcast and OZ-FM is required to announce the decision twice, once during peak listening hours and once during the same time slot when the complainant was so offended.

It is to weep, this triumph of small minds and over-parsed language.

Money for Nothing is not about bashing gays or lesbians. It is the story of a couple of blue-collar guys, watching the then-new phenomenon of MTV as they busted their butts on the hard physical labour of moving appliances, while on the small screen in front of their eyes was "the little faggot with the earring and the makeup" and the drummer "bangin' on the bongos like a chimpanzee," all of them filthy rich and maybe acquiring a blister on their little fingers in the process.

"Oh, that ain't workin'," Mark Knopfler sang. "That's the way you do it. Get your money for nothin' and your chicks for free."

Chicks aside - one prays there are no CBSC groupies - it's a damn fine description of what this panel did and what the CBSC does. That ain't workin', either.

I am blowing this icicle of a country for a couple of weeks in the sun. Complaints about this column, my language, attitude, tone, glasses and hair should be sent first to The Globe and, if unresolved, to the Ontario Press Council.

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