AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour with legendary British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. His music career began in the late ’70s in London when he formed the punk rock band Riff Raff. One of his early records, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, released in 1984, included the song "It Says Here," a critique of politics and tabloid newspapers that still rings true today in the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. This is an excerpt from his 1984 performance of the song on BBC Breakfast Time.
BILLY BRAGG: [singing] It says here that this year’s prince is born
It says here do you ever wish that you were better informed
And it says here that we can only stop the rot
With a large dose of law and order and a touch of the short sharp shock
If this does not reflect your view you should understand
Those who own the papers also own this land
And they’d rather you agree with Coronation Street capers
In the war of circulation, it sells newspapers
Could it be an infringement of the freedom of the press
To print pictures of women in states of undress
When you wake up to the fact that your paper is Tory
Just remember, there are two sides to every story.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Billy Bragg performing "It Says Here" in 1984. Also in the '80s, Billy Bragg released Between the Wars and Talking with the Taxman about Poetry, his first Top 10 album. On 1988'sThe Internationale, he recorded a version of the socialist anthem of the same name. In 1998 and 2000, Bragg participated in two well-known albums that gave voice to another folk troubadour who sang about the poor and working class. On Mermaid Avenue Volumes I and II, Bragg composed music for lyrics written by Woody Guthrie, and performed many of the songs alongside the album’s other main contributor, the band Wilco.
But to speak of Bragg simply as a singer-songwriter misses his passion for speaking out and singing out against injustice and fighting for many causes. In the '80s, he called for support for the 1984 strike by the National Union of Mineworkers, or [NUM]. The strike was one of the most significant chapters in Britain's trade union history, and ultimately defeated under the watch of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Billy Bragg went on to organize for the defeat of Thatcher and her Conservative government, a fight he continues into the present, as well as many others.
He’s on tour now in the United States. He just played several shows here in New York, along with an event he hosted outside Lincoln Center called "The Big Busk."
I started by asking Billy Bragg about the scandal around Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.
BILLY BRAGG: It is shocking to us in the U.K. I mean, we’ve long known of the closeness between our politicians and Rupert Murdoch. Successive British prime ministers have attempted to keep News International, which is the British arm of News Corp., very, very close. But the phone-hacking scandal has kind of blown up, and it’s actually been rumbling on for a few years. But it’s really been about people like the actress Sienna Miller. Nobody really cared. It was just an excuse to print another picture of this, you know, sort of vivacious blonde woman on the front page. Nobody took any notice. But when it transpired that the journalists from News of the World had been hacking into the phone messages of an abducted girl, I think it brought it home to everybody what really—what this really was about. And since then, in a real whirlwind that’s implicated not just our press, but our politicians and our police, it’s been a complete car crash. And it’s far from over. I think this will end up with executives of News Corp. possibly going to jail.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, amazing, we are only in the United States learning about the story of Milly Dowler, this 13-year-old girl went missing.
BILLY BRAGG: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Horror for her family.
BILLY BRAGG: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And then they start to get some hope. Explain.
BILLY BRAGG: Oh, yeah. Well, what happened was, while she was missing, her voicemail was accessed and some messages deleted. And the parents took this as a sign that she was still out there, that maybe she, you know, decided to run away from home but was still alive. But actually, it was journalists from Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World that were getting rid of these messages in the hope of getting more messages and getting more information for their story. I mean, it’s utterly despicable.
AMY GOODMAN: And then News of the World covered the parents being hopeful, because they said the voicemail was being deleted maybe by their daughter.
BILLY BRAGG: Exactly, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But they knew they, themselves, were doing it.
BILLY BRAGG: Well, one arm did, and the other arm didn’t, probably. But the very fact that someone in the newsroom must have known that they had their finger in both pies, and, you know, which we’re having to drag the information out at the moment. It’s a terrible, terrible drip, drip, drip.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, I saw you in your concert last night at City Brewery, and—City Winery, and you were just hearing about the story of Sarah Payne.
BILLY BRAGG: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain this story.
BILLY BRAGG: Well, as a result of this terrible incident with the phone messages of Milly Dowler, the News of the World was forced to close. Now, the News of the World is the biggest-selling English-language newspaper.
AMY GOODMAN: The biggest English-language newspaper in the world?
BILLY BRAGG: Yeah, yeah. The Times of India, The Hindu Times, sometimes says it is. But it’s, certainly for a long time, certainly the biggest-selling newspaper, English-language newspaper in the U.K., was forced to close. And as it went down, the one piece of moral high ground they had was a campaign they ran about another murdered child who had been abducted by a pedophile. And they brought in a law that, similar to what you have in the United States of America, where people have to be notified if a pedophile is released from prison and lives nearby. It’s called Sarah’s Law, by Sara Payne, the mother of the murdered child. And they made a huge issue about that: they did do some good. As the ship went down, this was their big issue. And it now transpires that they were hacking her phone, as well. At the same time as they were promoting her cause, they were just the same, listening to her phone messages.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Sara Payne’s daughter, also named Sarah, was killed by a pedophile.
BILLY BRAGG: She, the child, yeah—I can’t remember what the child’s name was, actually. But yeah, she was—
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah.
BILLY BRAGG: —was killed, yeah, by a pedophile. And with her mother, they launched this campaign, which did result in laws. But at the same time—
AMY GOODMAN: And to help her, they gave her a cell phone?
BILLY BRAGG: They did, yeah, which they hacked. Which is heartbreaking, isn’t it? Really, it’s heart-breaking. But that was the—you know, that was the only sort of thing that the News of the World could hold up and say, "Look, we’re not all bad." And it turns out they are all bad. And it’s about accountability. It comes down to the issue of accountability. I think it’s a very, very important issue in the 21st century. You know, when you look around, it’s not just politicians anymore who have power over us. It is—you know, people have economic power, they have information power. And how we hold those people to account, I think, is going to be the big question that we have to face.
AMY GOODMAN: Maybe you wield, Billy Bragg, the greatest power, which is the power of song in illustrating these stories and also bringing in history to understand what we’re seeing today. Can you sing the song that you have about The Sun?
BILLY BRAGG: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: But give us some context first. Tell us the story.
BILLY BRAGG: A little bit of context, yeah. Well, the day that they announced the News of the World was closing, I was driving to a concert in the north of England. It took me about eight hours. The traffic was dreadful. It was a weekend. And I was listening to all of this going down on the news channels on the radio. And the police were implicated. The politicians were implicated. You know, I’ve already said the News of the World was the biggest-selling newspaper in Britain, so, you know, we were implicated, the British people. The only—it seemed to me the only group of people who had any dignity in this were people in Liverpool, who have boycotted The Sun for a long time because of a story they wrote about a terrible incident where 96 soccer fans were killed, an accident when a pen was opened at a football match, and people streamed in and they were crushed to death. And The Sun —
AMY GOODMAN: This was a couple decades ago?
BILLY BRAGG: It was, in 1989. And The Sun newspaper, which is the sister paper to the News of the World, the daily paper, printed an article that said the fans from Liverpool had robbed the bodies of the dead as they were laid on the pitch and had beaten up the paramedics. This was all lies, complete lies.
AMY GOODMAN: And had urinated on the dead bodies.
BILLY BRAGG: And they did say that, yeah, which is unspeakable, isn’t it, to even suggest that. So people in Liverpool, for a long time now, have refused to buy The Sun or any of the News International newspapers, but specifically The Sun newspaper. And it seemed to me that they were the only people who had any, you know, credibility in this. You know, they had spotted this problem, you know, 20 years ago.
AMY GOODMAN: So they boycotted The Sun. What are they called?
BILLY BRAGG: The people in Liverpool, we call them "Scousers." That’s their accent. We call that "scouse." Their Liverpool—you know, the Beatles accent, we call that "scouse." So the punchline from this song is, you know, all this stuff is going on, but all these years "the Scousers never buy The Sun."
AMY GOODMAN: Billy Bragg.
BILLY BRAGG: [singing] Someone’s hiding in the bushes with a telephoto lens
While their editor assures them, the means justify the end
Because we only hunt celebrities, it’s all a bit of fun
But the Scousers never buy The Sun
While the parents of the missing girl cling desperately to hope
And a copper takes improper payments in a thick brown envelope
And no one in the newsroom asks where is this headline from
But the Scousers never buy The Sun
Tabloids making millions betting bollocks baffles brains
And they cynically hold up their hands if anyone complains
And they say "Well, all we’re doing is giving people what they want"
Well, they’re crying out for justice, people crying out for justice
And the man they call "The Digger" casts a proprietary eye
Over what goes on in the gutter and what happens in the Sky
And he claims he’s fit and proper, and the watchdog sings his song
But the Scousers never buy The Sun
International executives, they hang their heads in shame
And tell us with their hands on heart that the paperboy’s to blame