When Emily Parr was ejected from the Big Brother house for using a "racially offensive" term, we had to decide - quickly - whether or not to broadcast the word itself. The BBC's editorial guidelines include advice for our terrestrial TV channels, radio stations and online pages on such matters:
- Offensive language is one of the most frequent causes of complaint... Judgements about its use are difficult because they depend on tone and context. There is no consensus about words that are acceptable, when, and by whom. Different words cause different degrees of offence in different parts of the world… We must not include offensive language before the Watershed (that's 2100 - ed) or on radio when children are particularly likely to be in our audience, or in online content likely to appeal to a high proportion of children, unless it is justified by the context and then its frequent use must be avoided.
On News 24, the offending word "nigger" WAS used - sparingly. By which I mean that it was included in our full report on the story, and in interviews on the subject. It wasn't used in headlines or in the introduction to items on the row. The One O'Clock News followed suit, but the Six O'Clock News - mindful of the number of younger viewers watching at teatime - plumped for "the 'n'-word".
So, why did some parts of the BBC transmit the word, while others did not? Did we change our minds as the story developed? And what did our audiences make of it all? The term is clearly highly offensive to many people from all ethnic backgrounds, but it is also commonly used by many young black people. As we pointed out, it's a word heard regularly in more and more styles of pop music - and not only by black singers.
To explain the story and to try to put it in context, we decided initially neither to disguise the word, nor to keep repeating it. Not to have used it at all would have left many viewers wondering what all the fuss was about; to have kept saying it would have smacked of sensationalism.
So, by broadcasting the racist term in some - but not all - of our output, you might think the BBC is having its cake and eating it.Or perhaps we're simply indecisive? Other media organisations wrestled with the same issue - one national newspaper managed to print both both the word in full and "n*****" on the same page.
Audiences were quick to let us know what they felt by text, e-mail and phone. And they seemed unable to agree. Opinion was divided on whether the BBC's use of the word was offensive in itself, or whether it helped illustrate the issue. Many thought there were double standards involved: what do you think?
PS: My colleague Rod McKenzie from Radio 1 has also blogged about this - you can read his piece here.