Section 5: Harm and Offence
The effect of strong language depends on the choice of words, the speaker and the context. Different words cause different degrees of offence in different communities as well as in different parts of the world. A person's age, sex, education, employment, faith, nationality and where they live, may all have an impact on whether or not they might be offended.
However, the use of strong language must be editorially justified and appropriately signposted to ensure it meets audience expectations, wherever it appears.
Strong language is most likely to cause offence when it is used gratuitously and without editorial purpose, and when it includes:
- sexual swearwords
- terms of racist or ethnic abuse
- terms of sexual and sexist abuse or abuse referring to sexuality
- pejorative terms relating to illness or disabilities
- casual or derogatory use of holy names or religious words and especially in combination with other strong language.
Output controllers and programme or content producers should ensure that strong language, especially the strongest language, is subject to careful consideration and appropriate referral, to ensure it is editorially justified, before it is included in our output.
Context and tone are key to determining whether strong language will be acceptable or deemed unjustifiably offensive. We should consider the following:
- What language was used, who used it, to whom it was directed and why it was said
- How it was said. Was the tone angry or aggressive, or charming and funny? The same terms can be considered more or less offensive depending on the tone of the delivery and the character or personality who uses the terms
- Where the content is to be found in the television and radio schedules or online
- The quality of challenging material, which includes strong language, is a significant factor in determining its acceptability or unacceptability to audiences. Strong language can be acceptable when authentic or used for clear purpose or effect within a programme, but audiences dislike careless use which has no editorial purpose.
We must not include the strongest language before the watershed, or on radio when children are particularly likely to be in our audience, or in online content likely to appeal to a significant proportion of children.
We must also make careful judgements about the use of the strongest language post-watershed and ensure it is clearly signposted. Any proposal to use the strongest language (cunt, motherfucker and fuck or its derivatives) must be referred to and approved by the relevant output controller, who should consider the editorial justification. Chief Adviser Editorial Policy may also be consulted.
We must not include strong language before the watershed, or on radio when children are particularly likely to be in our audience, or in online content likely to appeal to a significant proportion of children, unless it is justified by the context. Even then, frequent use must be avoided.
Apart from the most exceptional circumstances, we must not include strong language which causes offence in
- pre-school children's programmes or websites (for four years and under)
- programmes or websites made for younger children.
Bleeping of Strong Language
In general, where strong language is integral to content and relevant questions of transmission slot and channel have been resolved, it should not be disguised. When a section of content is editorially justified but the slot, channel or context are not appropriate for strong language, it may be necessary to edit or bleep language, even post-watershed.
Language that is bleeped for pre-watershed content must be thoroughly obscured, taking care to ensure also that the bleeped words are not then made obvious by visible mouth movements.
(See Guidance: Language)
Section 5: Harm and Offence
- Audience Expectations
- Content Information
- The Watershed and Scheduling for TV, Radio and Online
- Live Output
- Intimidation and Humiliation
- Alcohol, Smoking, Solvent Abuse and Illegal Drugs
- Suicide, Attempted Suicide, Self-Harm and Eating Disorders
- Imitative Behaviour
- Tragic Events
- Hypnotism, Exorcism, the Occult and the Paranormal
- Flashing Images, Strobing and Images of Very Brief Duration
- Acquired Programmes