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To swear or not to swear

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Peter Rippon | 15:21 UK time, Monday, 21 July 2008

BH logoThere have been complaints from listeners about swearing during Broadcasting House this weekend from the Latitude Festival in Suffolk. The programme was live and a guest used the F-word. I want to apologise to listeners offended by the use of the word - it was inappropriate at that time of the day and in that context. The guest who used it, Irvine Welsh, apologised on air as soon as he said it and he apologised again to the BH team afterwards.

There is always an element of risk in doing live programmes. The BBC's Editorial Guidelines recognise that judgements about the use of swear words are difficult because they depend on tone and context and there is no consensus about which words are acceptable. Radio 4 is aimed at an adult audience and, unlike television, there is no watershed. In general, I think Radio 4 listeners have a high tolerance for swearing. We had 20 or so complaints in this case. But we attract just as many when we bleep or edit out swearing. Listeners argue we are insulting their intelligence and censoring when we do it.


  • Comment number 1.

    If you'd ever read one of Irvine Welsh's books you might have anticipated this happening! Its rather like having Ozzy Osbourne or John Lydon as a live guest.

    Frankly as 20 complained and about a million didn't I wouldn't worry too much.

  • Comment number 2.

    BBC Radio 4 would be better if the language did in fact reflect how people in the UK actually spoke, rather than pandering to those people who have been given a "veto" over it by being able to automatically complain and automatically get the response you have posted!

    I'm not saying that it should be encouraged, but stop making a fuss over a single usage.


  • Comment number 3.

    I'm not offended by swearing -- and not offended by the bleeping out of certain swear words before the watershed.

    I would add that my preference would be for the BBC to attempt to avoid swearing prior to the watershed, not to censor after the watershed, and not to beat themselves up too much if an occasional word gets through.

    But I'd not start inviting Shaun Ryder onto CBeebies, either...

    But what I don't want to see is the 'faux-swearing' that you used to get on some TV programs such as 'Eastenders'. Nobody, but nobody, ever tells anyone to 'naff off' in real life. If you want to include a phrase like that, use mild swearing if you want ('bugger' or similar), but otherwise don't use the phrase at all. 'faux swearing' just jars and sounds entirely wrong when you're striving for realism.

    ...unless of course you've given up on realism entirely, in which case you might as well use the Drokk! Stomm! and Grud! expletives of Judge Dredd...

  • Comment number 4.

    There have been a couple of other 'we had a few complaints' issues raised on this blog.

    I can't help wondering how representative these handful of complaints really are. I just don't know.

    I'm not desperate to hear more swearing, but as with Briantist above, I'm not sure small numbers of people should have a veto.

    The last similar topic was people complaining about a serious and important news item.

    Has anyone ever surveyed a more representative sample of people to see if they are offended by specific issues/expletives?

  • Comment number 5.

    Just call it "strong language" as the BBC usually does and there is no problem. It is very surprising that there has been any fuss about this.

    It is sad to say that decent standards from the BBC, in this respect, were lost a long time ago.

  • Comment number 6.

    There is no need for anyone to swear - we should all be able to express ourselves perfectly well without using foul and abusive language.

    The BBC should NOT collude with the general deterioration in respect that people have for one another by allowing swearing and the like to be broadcast.

  • Comment number 7.

    Sadly, I can't fully agree with 'jimthought' or visciousvic [? vic, are you trying to be vicious or viscous, or a little of both ?] but I guess, as with smoking, if people consent to it, then that is fine - but doing it where it inconveniences and annoys other people is something else entirely.

    Mr Rippon might say that Radio 4 is not the same as being trapped on public transport, and that one can always switch the radio off, whereas leaping from a moving train is not quite as easy. But maybe Radio 4 needs to maintain the oasis of decent behaviour found on the Quiet Carriage. Rather like the 'Quiet Carriage' no one is going to pretend that it will be obeyed perfectly but the choice is there.

    But on a far more important note, and whilst there is at least some chance that Mr Rippon may be reading some of these responses - is it not about time that the BH 'team' made a pitch to replace the programme 'Saturday Live' with something a lot more amenable?

    Using Sunday's programme as a template, Mrs Kearney could come 'down our way', present it live, have musicians and stand up comedy artisans and the like coming on to tell anecdotes and review the arts and so on. Go on, it would be much better !!

  • Comment number 8.

    I accept that people shouldn't swear in front of children, but that's so they dont repeat them over and over and embarrass their parents as they are wont to do. But--- swear words are just that: words. In this day and age is anyone really offended by hearing them? And if so, why? We all have sex and go to the toilet. Why does society find these words so shocking?

  • Comment number 9.

    Swearing on a "family show" is not acceptable behaviour. And the guest, should be required to apologise and he did so...

    Put a delay in live Interviews...

  • Comment number 10.

    Better to broadcast live and have the occasional lapses in content than "manufacture" programmes to suit editorial values. Provided offenders apologise what is the problem?

  • Comment number 11.

    To me, you are your own thoughts and your thoughts influence your speech. I think that swearing in most cases is needless and it (without trying to sound ott myself) cheapens the mind. I don't know if there's something I'm missing. People these days use extreme words for almost all situations.

  • Comment number 12.

    " ...unless of course you've given up on realism entirely, in which case you might as well use the Drokk! Stomm! and Grud! expletives of Judge Dredd... "

    Isn't that because the Judge issues on the spot fines for swearing? hence people don't use 'illegal' swear words. Maybe the BBC could try it?

  • Comment number 13.

    Oh good grief, what a fuss about nothing. If people get offended by naughty words on the radio, they can always switch it off.

    Please don't waste any more of your valuable editorial time worrying about such a non-issue.

  • Comment number 14.

    I've always been of the opinion that profanity has its place; used sparingly, to illustrate a point, it can be a powerful tool of self-expression. Those who pepper their prose with random expletives fail to realise that the power of swearing lies in its shock value, an effect diminished by over-use.

    That said, I don't think the dramatised exchanges of Eastenders call for F-bombs or even milder terms of abuse. I have many more issues with the content of that show and the time of broadcast than any Radio 4 interview; the litany of perpetual conflict being piped into our homes is serving to help normalise these types of interactions in real-life and glamorise the type of domestic behaviour that would once have been considered abnormal or shameful.

    I am somewhat conflicted on my views regarding 'questionable' content, though I do wish the BBC would stop hiding behind the watershed; around 75% of 7 year-olds have their own TV set in their bedroom and the idea that all these automatically fall silent at 9pm is frankly laughable. Broadcasters should be responsible where content is concerned irrespective of the time of transmission and end this ceasless scramble for the lowest common demominator, not least because there are many adults who are offended by or downright bored of vulgarity in the media.

    On the other hand it never ceases to amaze me that tabloid newspapers will happily print gratuitous shots of a semi-naked female whilst employing numerous asterisks in the accompanying article. I do think that sex and violence are infinitely more corrosive than bad language.

  • Comment number 15.

    "On the other hand it never ceases to amaze me that tabloid newspapers will happily print gratuitous shots of a semi-naked female whilst employing numerous asterisks in the accompanying article. I do think that sex and violence are infinitely more corrosive than bad language."

    Why is "Sex and Violence" always used together? I've never seen any violence on page three, nor have I ever experienced any violence when having sex. I can only presume that those who complain about sexandviolence are doing something terribly wrong in the bedroom, which presumably is why they have such a problem with it that they have to constantly complain!

  • Comment number 16.

    Peter_Sym @ #15 I'm not talking about the portrayal of sex as an expression of love between two people, but sociologically, as a demeaning, exclusive (because most people are not represented in the sexual imagery we are fed) and frankly tacky way of selling us stuff.

    In that context it IS about violence - the social violence which is inflicted upon all of us (and which, even if we put down the newspapers and turn off the TV, still assaults us from billboards and posters) hundreds of times each week.

    Inclusive, fun portrayals of sex in the proper context are not shameful, only the commodification of visual sexual imagery as a method of social control and profit maximization.

  • Comment number 17.

    "In general, I think Radio 4 listeners have a high tolerance for swearing. We had 20 or so complaints in this case. "

    I have no particular evidence for or against the above statement. But drawing the inference from the small number of complaints, and that people complain when 'bleeps' are used does slightly miss the point.

    It is rather like saying that the Irish people objecting to the Lisbon treaty are a small minority. Maybe so, but they outnumber the people who, when asked democratically, were in favour of the treaty.

    If you had been able to say that 30 people had complained about Sunday's show, asking for there to be 'more swearing', then your point might have some validity.

    Again, I'm aware that I'm the pot calling your rather shiny kettle black. But plenty of people challenged on trains to moderate their language have started to use the 'It is on the BBC..' argument, and I sometimes wish that is one line of defence that they did not have access to... -

    But Martha did get uncharacteristically schoolmarmish to tell the boys that only she should be allowed to swear, and reasserted authority - so I think that was sufficient to draw a line under the matter.

  • Comment number 18.

    Surely Swearing on Television is just another example of the standards which are becoming acceptable today? I agree that much of the time swearing in not necessary but surely most people could rhyme the word ie. say sugar instead of the word which when used in its correct manner describes anal sex.

    No body should be offended by the correct use of any word, even those which are often used as swear words.

  • Comment number 19.

    I'm not surprised. Swearing is fast becoming common parlance. I hear the most offensive swear words used in conversations everyday in public places in front of toddlers and young children. In sports grounds, but more distressingly supermarkets. At least once every shopping trip I'll hear an adult use the vilest language towards their young offspring.

    I often swear. I find it incredibly easy to know when and where I can use certain words and modify my speech. I don't need to think hard. This isn't a natural talent, it comes from being aware of where I am and what I'm doing. It comes easy because I care about other people. I care. Whenever you hear someone who slips a foul word out in the wrong place it's the surest sign that they believe they are far more important than anyone else. They may apologise, they may disagree that this isn't the case, it doesn't matter what they say, they've been revealed by their own mouth for what they think regardless of what is later said.

    I've appeared enough times on stage, on radio and on TV you just don't swear (unless it's in the script). It's isn't too difficult to do. I can't accept the apologises of anyone who does it as I feel they don't mean the apology, they just don't want to be in trouble any more. Radio and TV appearances equal popularity and that equals money Kerrrrrching! Hence a quick apology.

    The real shame is that swearing is fast becoming meaningless. We need these words. They can be great social tools, but they are bandied about without feeling and become powerless.

    You kill our language you kill a piece of us all .

  • Comment number 20.

    Dennis Skinner and others lit up our Parliament with gutsy, gritty, straight talking. We all massed around our TV screens for TW3 just to be a part of a show that was not shackled by a controller. We witnessed the attack on Bernard Levin and heard the occasional swear word. We were a part of broadcasting pushing the boundaries just a little further out.

    Now we have a PC empire where a wimp is given full coverage but the testy "villain" barely gets a look in. The BBC seems to have forgotten the diversity of human attitudes and yet gives full play to ethnic groups. Even its news stories play out to a middle class audience instead of encompassing the "ordinary" not so articulate person with something to say.

    There are plenty pf BBC presenters whose standards are way below what I expect from a National broadcaster. These people are similar to "tabloid" presenters with personal agendas that fit in with the PC brigade. How many people do the BBC think actually believe in PC?

  • Comment number 21.

    There is, in my opinion, far too much use of bad language on Radio and TV. Bleeping out is not the answer but a silent gap would be better, thereby making it less obvious to the under-age viewer/listener that the person has sworn.
    Additionally, please do not describe in the warnings to some programmes that strong language will be used, it's not strong language it's downright swearing. And finally, why not put in a time delay on live broadcasts then swearing could be edited out.

  • Comment number 22.

    As far as I can remember, some of the other content of the programme was 'post watershed' stuff, with even Martha Kearney getting in a few double entendres.

  • Comment number 23.

    Those here with a relaxed attitude to swearing on the BBC show an all too common lack of respect for others. Context is everything, but thoughtless, casual swearing is plain bad manners and typically indicates a lack of vocabulary and imagination. It really has no place in everyday regular broadcasts.

    Nor is it good enough to say that people can always turn it off. They can only do so after the event and the BBC shouldn’t need reminding that they are broadcasting into peoples homes; I wouldn't tolerate strangers using bad language in my living room, so why should the BBC be an exception?

    Radio 4 listeners may have a high tolerance for many things, including swearing and being patronised, but it’s still your job to discourage it. Leave the bad language for those situations where stress, shock or serious drama justify it. For everything else, particularly programmes involving celebrity rabble, let’s leave it behind, please.

  • Comment number 24.

    I was brought up not to swear in public, or at my parents . That has stayed through me pretty well all through my life - and it was and is something I do sparingly but rather enjoyably when the situation creates enough emotion to warrant it and it isn't going to offend anyone.

    What I really hate is when people use swear words as adjectives...

  • Comment number 25.

    There is no need for anyone to swear - we should all be able to express ourselves perfectly well without using foul and abusive language.


    Personally I don't see the problem, who has the right to decide whether a word constitutes swearing or not?

    There are far more offensive words that are not classed as swearing in my opinion. Add to that that to be offensive surely a word has to be aimed at someone in a descritptive manner and it makes a mockery of it.

    I don't see the point in shielding people from language like this.

  • Comment number 26.

    " ...unless of course you've given up on realism entirely, in which case you might as well use the Drokk! Stomm! and Grud! expletives of Judge Dredd... "

    Isn't that because the Judge issues on the spot fines for swearing? hence people don't use 'illegal' swear words. Maybe the BBC could try it?


    So if we substitute the F-word with Drokk instead, doesnt that mean that Drokk means exactly the same and thus should be equally as offensive ?

    What a stupid argument.

  • Comment number 27.

    casual swearing is plain bad manners and typically indicates a lack of vocabulary and imagination.


    What a sad comment, I hear this over and over again yet I know of many highly intelligent, educated, creative and artistic people who regularly swear.

    Words like this is used to offer a description in the modern language and are perfectly valid.

  • Comment number 28.

    Nothing wrong with swearing. Beeping it out gives more attention to it.

    I hear more swearing walking to the supermarket than on Radio4.

  • Comment number 29.

    It seemed clear to me that the BH newspaper review participants had decided beforehand that they would try to shock listeners by their choice of subjects and use of language and in their loutish way they succeeded! They should have had part of their fees with-held.
    In my travels throughout the UK over many years I have found that generally speaking people do not find swearing acceptable. Whilst it might be tolerable in some BBC plays and late night comedy programmes I find its use on BH repulsive.

  • Comment number 30.

    Children swear at children. Day in, day out in the playground, on the Internet, by text message they swear at each other.

    Broadcasting House, by contrast, swears at them once in a month of Sundays ... if that.

    Parents troubled by last week's expletive should ask themselves the following 2 questions...

    1. Is it a bad thing that your kids actually listen to Radio 4 at so young an age? (Spend some time pondering this)

    2. Why weren't they at Sunday school?

  • Comment number 31.

    What's galling is the way swearing and obnoxious behaviour on the media generally seems to be a short-cut to celebrity and attention.
    Just as reprehensible is the 'Bob Geldof'- type use of expletive to imply that the speaker cares 'passionately' about something or that he 'at least' isn't part of the establishment.
    Well, in my eyes, the establishment is mired in this desire to seek relevance or street-cred or whatever through profanity. It's annoying to see the likes of Catherine Tate, Johnathn Ross, Billy Connelly et all now firmly entrenched in lucrative 'family viewing' now that they made their mark in some sort of notoriety.

  • Comment number 32.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 33.

    Swearing has become commonplace and very few eyebrows are raised when this happens. This is sad! However we should set a good example to minors or to young children as they will be the ones to carry on the baton by becoming exemplary future citizens. Bad behaviour is becoming endemic and it is high time something is done about it. Cultivating bad habits and using inappropriate language are most certainly not in the interests of a strong healthy vibrant society both in mind and spirit. Broadcasters have an extremely important role: use good sensible language at all times.

  • Comment number 34.

    *Pancha - You suggest that standards of good behaviour and 'good habits' be passed to the next generation who should in turn exemplify the same values to their own successors.

    There would surely be no vibrancy in a society whose standards and values ossify through the generations.

    The reality is that notions of good behaviour adapt and evolve with a changing society; that's why we no longer burn witches nor use legal process to oppress minorities.

    I think it's more important that we impart to the next generation a breadth of knowledge and linguistic sophistication if we wish them to make considered moral choices.

  • Comment number 35.

    A more important question is why the BBC dedicated so much airtime to this festival. There are dozens of festivals going on throughout the UK and many of them would be glad of the publicity. I realise that Sussex and Cambridge are within easy driving distance of London, and therefore almost within the BBC horizon, but as this festival had commercial sponsors they are the ones who should be paying for the advertising, not the licence payer.

  • Comment number 36.

    He apologised, you apologised, move on. There's always people who will ignore that and still complain, but there's not much more you can do apart from recording everything which I don't think anyone wants, or delaying it. Then there'd be more complaints.

  • Comment number 37.

    In the corner of the room is a box where the bbc is allowed to come into my house.

    All I ask is they treat my home, as I treat it, namely no swearing in front of the children.

    The slip about the male appendage will be on the outtake tape this year, but the f word at 9:30 on a Sunday morning really.

    As an experiend broadcast engineer, knowing the type of act they had on, I would have put the delay on - do they not have them any more in the beeb

    Not only do adults listen to radio 4, but children do.

    Its a paradox that the bbc is happy to have this type of language on during the day, but at 12:30 in the morning on a FiveLive program they cut them off.

  • Comment number 38.

    I find myself agreeing with the majority of people here.
    It does, however, strike me as bizarre that an editor should devote his blog to one swear word (commonly heard in playgrounds), when the level of English across the BBC is dropping to ridiculously childish levels.
    There also seems to be a bigger matter going on here, which my friends and myself have discussed at length; Puritanical Censorship.
    During the 1970s, and even moreso, the 80s, the BBC reacted to the post sexual revolution, post Hippy, and people driven actions, by changing its standards of acceptable broadcasting. Whilst shows like Benny Hills were relegated to the archives, comedians such as Dave Allen, the 'Not the Nine O'clock News' team and the 'Young Ones' appeared. Programming was allowed to challenge the Temperance Society generation, becoming grittier and more in keeping with the society of the day. Gradually, though, and rather surreptitiously, these freedoms have been eroded over the last 15 years. The cancellation of 'The Day Today' because viewers thought it was a genuine news programme, and felt stupid when they realised that they had missed the joke, appears to have been an early sign of this backward path.
    Today, the tv schedules look more and more like the pre-change 1970s, and not just because of the repeats. Anything that is not completely bland, or elitist is not permitted. Strangely, I don't recall any fuss being made when opera singers appeared full-frontal naked at the opening of Wagners Ring Cycle, portraying the Rhine Sirens, despite this being before the watershed. Why? Because no child would bother to watch, only adults with a decent education and elitist appreciation of art! Pah.
    Yet a notorious novelist slips accidentally, and speaks as he would normally on Radio4, and here we are. Does the BBC really believe that todays youth come home from school, put their knives away, crack open an alco-pop and settle down to Radio4? Please, let's try to exist in the 21st century. Swearing is part of the English language (as an English teacher, I should know), but should be used only to emphasise a certain point, or as a sign of exasperation. When used properly, a little bad language is a tool, when overused or improperly used, it reflects ignorance.

  • Comment number 39.

    Judge Dredd, haha! Obviously i am against swearing on tv, or in english in general ftm. But sometimes people just have to swear, and i'm also against censorship, so some kind of compromise has to be found!

  • Comment number 40.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 41.

    Hi Martin im also a dad. However there is no need 4 language like that from u either on here with the xxs. Take it easy

  • Comment number 42.

    I’ve been a BBC viewer (and listener) for over 50 years. During that time I have seen standards gradually slip and it’s terribly disappointing to see such a great broadcaster that once set the standards for decorum now joining other broadcasters reflecting the lowest common denominator.

    I am not a prude – I’ve spent many hours in sports changing rooms and there is not an expletive I haven’t hear or used myself, but I don’t want to hear that sort of language broadcast on the radio or television.

    Recently, I’ve heard BBC news presenters using phrases like ‘pissed off’ and “cock-up” at viewing times when children could be watching. It sets a poor example to easily influenced minds and reflects badly on the corporation. I hope the BBC addresses these issues.

  • Comment number 43.

    To - yydelilah 03 Sep 2008 re Standards

    I agree with you 100% , however, we have entered an age in which audience total is more important than BBC integrity. Very sad; very hard to believe by those who have known the BBC for many years, nevertheless very true.
    What can we do about it? The BBC does have some minority programs. Perhaps there are still a few authors who can write foul language free. It might even start a new trend.


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