Roger Bolton is an independent producer and presents BBC Radio 4's Sunday and Feedback programmes. He writes in a personal capacity.
Listen to the Lord 3
Bill Hagerty - Kinnock: Where Clarke was right 7
Close-up on the BBCWill Wyatt - Stand up and be counted 15
Michael White - Grumpy Humpy should bow out 21
Tim Luckhurst - Sabotaging a star 27
Francis Jezierski - Unequal war of the web 33
Jane Brown - Fast stalker 39
Roger Bolton - Mind your language 44
British Museum - Gone and (largely) forgotten 50
Stephen Bax - Beware the press in times of war 53
John Campbell - Why papers of record are history 59
Stewart Purvis - Clean sweep in the Ukraine 65
BOOK REVIEWSAnthony Delano on Dennis Griffiths 70
Martyn Gregory on Patricia Holland 72
Michael Leapman on Angela V John 74
Liz Vercoe on Julia Hobsbawm 76
Martin Rowson on Mark Bryant 78
The way we were 32
For a large part of my early life the most offensive word I knew was
“diddums”. Its use, by my older sister, reduced me to paroxysms of anger and
quivering emotions. As I was, and hope still am, a pretty calm sort of person,
it still baffles me why I used to allow her to wind me up so easily and why,
emotion being recollected in tranquillity, I still hate the word. After all, in my
somewhat chequered journalistic career, I have been called a “traitor” and
accused of being “lower than a snake's belly”, and was one of those BBC
hacks blamed by Paul Johnson 20-odd years ago of “raping for the
Revolution” and lying – “The BBC not only lies, it lies for the Left”, he wrote.
That was water off a duck's back.
So what is so offensive about “diddums”? Well it's personal. And that's the trouble with trying to decide, as a broadcaster or writer, what is likely to offend and whether any offence would be justified. It's very personal, and there is precious little logic to it. Take the four-letter word for having sex, not the f-word but the b-word: bonk. Almost totally inoffensive, you can use it in almost any company without causing offence – in fact it is pretty well guaranteed to raise a smile, particularly when used in connection with John Prescott. It was, I believe, invented by the tabloid press, which needed a brief way of referring to the sexual act that would not result in their readership f*****g off. (“Shag” is of course also useful, as in Two-Shags Prescott).
But words still do offend. Indeed, survey after BBC survey on what causes offence reveals that it is “ bad language”, not explicit sex or brutal violence, that most offends viewers and listeners. The trouble is that it is almost impossible to compile a definitive list of words that cause offence. Language is, of course, fluid and new words and phrases are continually entering the vocabulary. And, to complicate matters, old inoffensive words suddenly become newly offensive. Consider, for example, “Negro”. Forty years ago it was purely descriptive and largely inoffensive. Now it is regarded as insulting – except that young blacks have now started using it again, much to the disgust of their elders. It's difficult to keep up. Those who review past programmes for re-showing on the BBC digital network's BBC 7 have some tricky decisions to make when confronted with Till Death us Do Part's Alf Garnett expressing his pungent views on “Pakis”, and Round the Horne, with its jokes about “queers”.
It isn't surprising that this is a delicate area for broadcasters in particular, because in radio and television the words are, of course, spoken, not read, and often are heard in public. Most of us, I suspect, can remember laughing out loud at a sexual joke when reading or alone in front of the television, but sitting very uncomfortably and wishing to be somewhere else when the same joke was told with your mother sitting next to you on the couch. The same often applies if children are in the room. A Radio 4 Feedback listener put it this way: “I regard my radio as a friend and I wouldn't expect a friend to come into my house and use foul language.”
Viewers and listeners also hate being taken by surprise and want to be warned so they can prepare themselves and their family for what is to be broadcast, or switch off. So the broadcasters have produced elaborate editorial guidelines (accessible on the net) that producers are supposed to follow. They emphasise tone and context and do not underestimate the complexity of the issue. As the BBC Guidelines make clear: “Different words cause different degrees of offence in different parts of the world. So a person's age, sex, education, employment, belief, nationality, and where they live, all impact on whether or not they might be offended.” It's enough to make you enter a monastery and take a vow of silence.
The BBC appears to have six commandments on the subject:
1. We do not include any offensive language in pre-school children's
programmes or websites (four years and under).
So there is a little wriggle-room there, but hardly any for the most offensive words, which are deemed to be cunt, motherfucker and fuck, although a viewer of Forty Years of Fuck on BBC3 recently would have heard them all delivered with relish, albeit at 10.30 at night. More of that later. In September last year, Ofcom, which regulates all non-BBC broadcasting and much else, conducted a fascinating “contextual investigation “into Language and Sexual Imagery in Broadcasting, concluding: “Participants felt that swearing and offensive language has increased and become more widespread over time. It is seen as a symptom of a decline in public standards”. Unsurprisingly, they blamed young people for being most offensive and showing least respect.
Seven areas of insultThere was a broad consensus on what was offensive – mostly mentioned were “cunt” and “fuck”. Among those from ethnic minorities, however, some terms of racist abuse were also put forward as being the most offensive words or insults. These included “Paki”, “nigger” and in one case “coloured”. However, the Ofcom survey revealed that in almost every group discussion they conducted there was at least one person who felt strongly, because of their background or faith, about profanity, which included “Jesus Christ”. In one of the groups in Scotland the most offensive terms included “Fenian” and “Fenian bastard” as well as “Proddy”. The Ofcom survey tried to categorise the words that gave offence into seven areas: Insults, Body parts, Religious, Sex, Racial abuse, Condition/Orientation and Ethnic minority. If you are sitting comfortably I'll spell out the allegedly offensive words.
INSULTS: bastard, bitch, cocksucker, dickhead, motherfucker,
prickteaser, slag, slut, wanker, whore.
I clearly need to get out more as there are quite a few words there I've never heard, on or off the air. But Ofcom's interviewees are convinced that there is more bad and offensive language in broadcasting than there used to be, which may be as a result of the rise in so-called reality shows. To use in the survey, Ofcom collected 10 clips from pre- and post-watershed programmes in 2004. The reactions to them are fascinating and, in some cases, surprising.
Drama and entertainment focus groups were shown an episode of Only Fools and Horses (BBC1, 9.30pm), which used the word “Mong”, as in Mongoloid and slang for imbecile – there wasn't much concern. “You bitch” was said in an episode of Emmerdale (ITV, 7pm): no real worries there – it was thought to be in character. A father in My Parents are Aliens (ITV, 4.30pm) said, “I'm not a retard”. That polarised opinion more than most. Tanya in FootballersWives (ITV, 9pm) said, “Jesus shitting Christ”, and, although the phrase was disliked by most, in the context of the drama most thought it was not offensive. The most offensive clip in the drama and entertainment area was thought to be from Channel 4's Union Jack (1.10pm), containing various words and phrases considered distasteful, with Sharon Osbourne, pretending to be an agony aunt, using the words “arsewipe” and (bleeped) “fuck”. Offence caused was due to the timing and the fact that it was unexpected.
In the reality and documentaries area little offence was taken at the use of “shit, shit, shit”, in No Going Back (C4, 8pm), nor at “fucking mad man” in Bad Lad's Army (ITV2, 9pm) although there was a desire to see it broadcast closer to 10pm. One of the celebrities, disappointed about not being voted out in Ant and Dec's I'm a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here (ITV, 9pm) said “Fucking cunts”. This was particularly offensive to older people (55+), British Asians, and parents of older children, but two thirds thought that the transmission time was suitable. BBC2 broadcast at 9pm a documentary about three London-based girl gangs in which the words “Paki” and “nigger” were used. This was highly offensive to a third of correspondents and everyone agreed there should be a time restriction on its use. Finally, an episode of Trouble at the Top (BBC2 9.50pm) contained the phrases “fucking mullet” and “Jesus fucking Christ”. It was, perhaps not unsurprisingly, a chef under pressure who used the words. Older respondents were very offended, younger respondents less so.
So what can we conclude from all this? To me some of the most striking things are the continuing support for the watershed, the different responses of older and younger correspondents and the extraordinarily wide range of potentially offensive words. Most people, however, are well able to differentiate between the gratuitous use of offensive language and its effective use in context. And the audience seems to have different expectations of different channels. I wonder if Channel 4's Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, in which celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay seems to say “fuck” at least once in every sentence, would be acceptable on BBC2? I don't think so.
Simply tried to shockIt is almost exactly 40 years since Kenneth Tynan said the first “fuck” on British television, to be followed by the publisher Felix Dennis's use of the word “cunt” on a David Frost programme. BBC3's Forty Years of Fuck recently showed clips of these and other “shocking” uses of language in a programme which as usual poked fun at that brave if misguided woman, Mary Whitehouse. In my eyes she came off rather better than the juveniles who had little to say of any value, so simply tried to shock us instead. At least Mrs W had the nerve to take on the wonderful but arrogant BBC Director- General, Hugh Carlton Greene, in a cause in which she passionately believed. Tynan himself is now remembered by many only for that first use of the fword and not for his fine drama criticism.
The BBC3 programme held some surprises. I had forgotten that, 40 years ago, Alf Garnett was saying “bloody” frequently, and before 9pm, on BBC1. I had thought “bloody” came from “God's blood”, instead of from “By Our Lady”, and I had forgotten that the favourite expletive of Ronnie Barker's Fletcher in BBC1's Porridge, “Naff off ”, was invented for the series by the writers Ian La Frenais and Richard Clement. It is clearly pointless banning offensive words in their entirety, as that is just a red rag to a bull, but equally it is pointless to offend people without having a good reason to do so, particularly in broadcasting. Bad language, used sparingly and in the right context, can be very effective, but the simple attempt to shock is usually undertaken by those who have nothing to say, and some swear words are used with such frequency that they are meaningless. We have perhaps the richest language in the world with, thanks to Norman, Viking, Anglo Saxon and other immigrant groups, an immensely wide choice of words and synonyms. We have few excuses for witless repetition.
By the way, if this article has truly pissed you off, I'll be glad to hear from you and won't be offended by any language you choose to use. But could you please not say “diddums”.