STYLE

The X@! Factor: Is Swearing On TV Still Offensive?

06/01/2011 16:20 | Updated 22 May 2015

If you had tuned into Film 2010 last week to enjoy Claudia Winkleman's discussion about Jamie Lee Curtis's new film You Again, you might have been a little surprised to suddenly overhear a random voice off set, merrily chatting away and being cut dead just after saying: "I don't give a fuck about a load of..."

Oh dear, Auntie! The 'f' word! On the BBC!

It was treated as a little catastrophe. The sound man, who must have been snoozing at the time, was jabbed in the ribs and auditory focus returned to Winkleman – she quickly apologised for the "technical error" that must have caused offence to viewers.

But did it actually cause that much offence?! You would assume so, given the furore the tabloid press created. Viewers were "shocked" said The Sun and the Daily Mail, by the "foul-mouthed rant". But the blunder was broadcast well after the watershed and I'm having trouble finding any evidence of shocked, disgruntled or outraged viewers on message boards or online forums (most seem to be more upset about Winkleman landing that job in the first place actually). Nevertheless, according to the Radio Times, the Beeb may now reconsider their decision to broadcast the show live.

Obviously, this particular 'incident' was accidental but, considering swearing on TV generally, is it not merely reflective of a society in which effing and blinding, rightly or wrongly, is commonplace? So is it still all that offensive? This summer, Ofcom published research suggesting that attitudes towards swearing on TV are relaxing a bit – and a contributor to that study was quoted as saying: "The whole thing about television is that it's a portrayal of life and you cannot lose that. If you don't like it, there is always the off button."

The right wingers didn't agree: days later, the Daily Mail commissioned its own MORI poll (which interviewed a whole different set of people, in particular fewer travellers and transsexuals stressed the paper – dear lord) to disprove the TV watchdog's findings. It reported that a quarter of their respondents had been personally upset by foul language on the TV in the last 12 months, and three-quarters believed bad language on TV had a negative effect on young people.

While it's beautifully convenient to blame the media for all the bad language of today's youth, it's a bit naïve. As sure as there were eggs before there were chickens, there were profanities before the media was around to reflect them. Language itself has evolved. The dinosaur 'bother' has become the beaked and feathered 'bollocks' – and that's not down to the media.

Of course we don't want to hear swearing on TV throughout the day and early evening when young children could be watching, but let's be adult about it shall we? When I'm watching grown up TV, I expect grown up, realistic content – whether that's in a drama, a documentary or a late-night chat show. When, on Newsnight, Jeremy Paxman has his wrists slapped for quoting directly from a book that uses the 'f' word (which had been uttered by the Prime Minister incidentally), I feel a little patronised if I'm honest. Really, I can deal with it!

Admittedly, Paxman should have known better than to say "bollocks" at teatime on a Sunday during the election coverage. Perhaps he'd been working too hard and didn't know what time of day it was.

Anyway, effectively placed swear words on TV don't bother me at all. But I wonder if I've just become so used to hearing profanities irritatingly overused in real life, for want of a more intelligent grasp of language, that I'm unaffected by it on the box. Maybe it even makes me appreciate it. I had no off button to use walking down the street the other day with my two-year-old, when a schoolboy who wished to gain the attention of, and then wave at, a classmate on the other side of the road, bellowed: "Simon, you WANKER!"

"How funny darling! That boy just shouted 'your ANCHOR!" at his friend. Perhaps his friend is a pirate!"

Attitudes do change with the times. I swear more than my parents do. Goodness, perhaps by the time that lad finds himself in court being asked "Will you swear on the Bible...?" the common response might be "fucking right I will."

For now, every TV channel or newspaper will guard its perceived readership according to what it believes they can tolerate. The Daily Mail will asterisk, the Guardian won't. What about you MyDaily reader? Should I have been asterisked or not?

By: Pip Jones

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