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Inappropriate language?

Peter Barron | 14:21 UK time, Friday, 8 September 2006

There's always been a debate about what is and isn't acceptable on TV news programmes, and now that we have blogs, forums and podcasts it's only getting more complicated. And should Newsnight's on-line persona be exactly the same as that on TV? Here are a few of this week's posers.

Newsnight logo• Our Ethical Man Justin Rowlatt caused a degree of outrage when, in a film about cycling proficiency (watch it here), he asked a youngster if he was "pissed off". By today's standards that's hardly obscene and I'm sure the minor in question had heard, and probably said, much worse, but I must admit I spluttered into my cocoa watching at home.

On the other hand, when I used the term "crap prizes" in a response on this blog, I was surprised that some viewers thought that was inappropriate language for the editor of Newsnight, even in an obscure corner of the blogosphere.

• A few of you have been writing on the blog complaining that some of your comments have been censored and asking why. In short, I don't know. On Newsnight, we censor nothing that appears on the site, but we do employ an outside moderating company who check for, among other things, "profane, abusive or threatening language" (full guidelines here).

So, in response to a question about graffiti scrawled on his abandoned car, the foul-mouthed Justin's strictly factual response was barred from publication. I'm not going to repeat it here, but it begins with "w".

• Where does informality end and falling standards begin? Yesterday on the website, we asked you - as a diverting pastime while we waited for Mr Blair - to construct a statement which might get the PM off the hook. About 300 hundred of you obliged, but one bridled: "I find this exercise pretty stupid for the level that BBC and Newsnight traditionally were holding and still claim to hold."

• I enjoyed the fact that when Laura Kuenssberg said that Jack Straw had been talking in the past tense some of you pulled her up, pointing out he was actually talking in the present perfect (the operative phrase was "has been"). Then again - as some of you have also raised - the standard of spelling and grammar among viewers' contributions to the blog is sometimes pretty appalling. Not what we would expect from Newsnight viewers.

Newsnight graphic• Two quick ones which raised eyebrows inside and outside the programme. Tony Blair portrayed as Christ at the Last Supper as an illustration of that memo. Blasphemy or genius? And what about Kirsty's description of Gordon Brown's command and control network as Al-Qaeda-like? One of our own programme editors thought that was appalling.


  • 1.
  • At 03:32 PM on 08 Sep 2006,
  • Ed wrote:

I've made perfectly valid comments, not attacking anyone on this blog and they've not been moderated and shown. I sometimes put quite a bit of work (well 5 minutes) into writing a reply, so I would at least like it to appear! Sometimes moderating takes a day or more - you need to make this outside moderating company (who are reading this I guess) get their act together!

There are always a few sad people that complain when certain words are used.

Personally I dont see a problem. We even have cabinet ministers apparently (according to Nick Robinson) using the f word in conversations. This shows how it is now a part of everyday langauage, so people should just deal with it.

  • 3.
  • At 04:10 PM on 08 Sep 2006,
  • chris wrote:

For swaring it should be different the internet is open to all including children. Newsnight goes out at 10.30 so its correct not to have any swaring on the blog.

For me grammar and spelling on the blog needs a lot of allowance English is not the first language of many. On Newsnight all effort should be made to get it correct and yes even Kirsty's pronunciations.

But worst of all and unforgivable is the absolutly terrible lighting on location interviews. To this viewer inappropriate visual language is the pits.

  • 4.
  • At 04:27 PM on 08 Sep 2006,
  • JPseudonym wrote:

I had to laugh the other week while watching Gordon Ramsay's F word.

One of the guest cooks was bleeped for an 'unapproved' expletive.

It's quite staggering the this programme is littered with unbleeped 'f' words but the 'c' word is so frowned upon. I thought a programme specialising in bad language would not have been 'puritanical' and protective towards our innocent ears.

Personally, I abhor bad language and think it sets a bad example.

I do not expect bad language to appear on newsnight from the presenters. Including the 'low' level examples above. I accept it if reported as direct quotes from someone in the news, it reflects information as to their manners, attitude and behavior. Telling us something of the person using it.

There is also no excuse for any swear words on this typed medium. How sad do you have to be actually to type such words, it is not like the slip of irate spoken word, you have time to clean up and correct before submitting.

The likes of calling The Chancellor 'Al-Qaeda-like is perfectly reasonable colourful description. As is the pictorial Bliar Christ. We know he believes it already!

  • 6.
  • At 05:10 PM on 08 Sep 2006,
  • John Ainslie wrote:

I don't see that it is ever acceptable to swear in front of a child on serious television, and if thats the only question Justin had to ask, then her should have just kept his mouth shut. And seeing a newsreader accuse her audience of going "blogtastic" was pretty bizarre as well. I keep thinking I'm watching time trumpet, not newsnight!

I must say in reference to the"degree of outrage" caused by Justin Rowlatt. The young lads response when Justin offered to send the badge onto him was brilliant.

On watching the footage when broadcast, I did think my ears were deceiving me, saying that i think Justin reports continue to be newsnight highlights.

  • 8.
  • At 05:58 PM on 08 Sep 2006,
  • Ozoda Muminova wrote:

Don't mean to sound boring or patronising, but Newsnight is a brand and brands need consistent communication regardless of the media channel. So yes, if you find it unacceptable to swear on TV, it is equally unacceptable to do so online. I am also suprised that you are calling your own blog an "obscure corner" - not the best way to promote it... Another matter is contributions from the viewers, as we do not represent your brand, we should be allowed to express opinions freely, reasonably (and you would know what this word means better than me).

  • 9.
  • At 06:52 PM on 08 Sep 2006,
  • Ashley Ballard wrote:

Most of it's silly stuff.
I expect Newsnight to be grown-up and not to shy away from grown-up words. The Blair statement thing was a bit below the belt, though.
If you want to insist on not calling the perfect continuous a past tense you should perhaps remember that perfect is latin for finished, which is surely just as bad as being in the past. You should never have tried to make a point out of it though.
Likening Brownites to Al Qaeda seems needlessly emotive, when you could have just said a spy network, but Steve Bell was drawing Blair as Jesus because of his messianic side years ago.

You've enough to wory about getting the facts right and avoiding bias, so don't let these whingers distract you too much.

  • 10.
  • At 07:40 PM on 08 Sep 2006,
  • Jono wrote:

Never mind all of that; why wasn't the cycling proficiency geezer wearing a crash helmet. He should have had all his silly badges taken away from him.

Peter it's a shame when Newsnight spills out the lazy claptrap about Brown not having a mandate to serve as PM.

Despite what a few journos and Tories think we don't directly elect the head of government here.

It's about time 'serious' news outlets stopped ignoring the fact that the only vote the public get at a General Election is for their own local MP.

Of course voters know who the leader is and that they will become PM if enough MPs are elected but it’s not the same as voting directly for a national leader and in any event pretty much anyone awake during the 2005 GE spotted how Blair had to beg Gordon Brown to help him win.

The wider electorate have been told for a decade that Brown will be the next PM and Blair’s pre-announcement of his departure made it clear that Brown was likely to take over at some point before the next GE.

It’s improbable that anyone casting a vote for Labour in 2005 failed to understand that at least some of this Parliament would be led by Prime Minister Brown.

IF he wins Gordon Brown will have as much right to serve out the remainder of this Parliament as John Mayor or James Callaghan did before him.

Indeed, if we consider the fact that every Labour member will have a chance to elect Blair’s successor their mandate will be greater than those mid-term replacements previously chosen by MPs and Grandees.

As I've written elsewhere today, we’re about to depose this nation’s first President, let’s not formalise his self-grandiosment by insisting every future leader secures a personal mandate.

Instead lets return to the understanding that, no matter how much some might wish otherwise, we vote for parties in this country.

  • 12.
  • At 11:24 PM on 08 Sep 2006,
  • Pat` wrote:

Well said Martin.

  • 13.
  • At 10:04 AM on 09 Sep 2006,
  • paul wrote:

I think the problem most people have is that they vote for a party at a general election and soon find the ruling elite begin to lose touch with the wishes of the people who elected them.
Who in this country voted for the downgrading and closure of local hospitals for instance.
Perhaps by attempting to influence a change of leader, there is a vain hope that policy might change.


I agree with you and the current Blair clique are very bad at ignoring the wider electorate - the whole of the 2005 GE was focused on a few thousand voters in 'key' seats.

However returning to my hobbyhorse the media debate about the succession of Tony Blair has been misleading and dishonest on a number of points.

Firstly there's talk of a 'coronation' when in fact there will be at least two candidates.

Then there's the talk of Brown having no mandate yet the moment the Queen invites him to form serve as PM he'll have the same mandate as every other PM in history.

When you consider the amount of noise over the issue it's baffling that the same media trumpet the efforts of the Lords - who have no democratic mandate - to challenge the Government.

By my reckoning Brown (if it's him) will be the first 'mid-term' Prime Minister selected after a ballot of the whole party membership. None of the national news outlets seem to have commented on this preferring instead the soap-like elements.

As for Clarke's intervention, that Newsnight can devote so much time to the mutterings of a sacked Home Secretary whose own successor branded the department he ran as 'dysfunctional' and 'not fit for purpose' without setting the comments into any context is more than a little lazy.

There's also far too much consideration given to opinion polls in the coverage of this issue. A party having a few days of bad headlines will attract a lower opinion poll rating but that rating has little or no basis in medium term fact.

January saw the LibDems depose Kennedy. The same pollsters spent weeks asking the same questions of 'voters' (often not even people guaranteed to vote in any election) as they are now and got the same answer that leadership turmoil had damaged the party. Then, the same TV presenters interviewed the same talking heads who ad nauseum told us the public dislike 'split' parties and punish them at the polls.

Meanwhile in the real world the party won the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election. In Bromley and Chislehurst they came a very strong second. Despite these very recent lessons in 'Why Not to Trust Polls' the BBC and other news outlets continue to treat polls as The Truth.

it's pointless and silly but it's also cheap and easy content.

  • 15.
  • At 03:32 PM on 09 Sep 2006,
  • Tim Jackson wrote:

I’m surprised you refer to your website as an "obscure corner".

I read your website regularly, I almost never watch that obscure news programme you put on BBC2 after I have gone to bed.

  • 16.
  • At 04:25 PM on 09 Sep 2006,
  • Molly Arnold wrote:

Probably just my imagination but the blogs seem much better monitored recently.At the beginning they were such a mass of repetition,rants, circular arguments etc that they made the mad hatters tea party look like a paragon of rationalism.

  • 17.
  • At 04:55 PM on 09 Sep 2006,
  • Jennifer Watts wrote:

Peter Barron, Editor Newsnight.
I wrote a comment on your latest issue on "language". However I think I wrote it in the wrong comment box, and then cleared it before I posted it! This is the real comment. Talking about viewers ungrammatical language, spelling mistakes etc; I confess to be at fault. I watch your programme at 23.30, an hour later than it is on the air in the UK. I wrote one piece very late, when I was tired. The next morning, on reading it again, I was throughly shocked and humilated by the mistakes I had made, especially for someone who has a diploma in TEFL, and teaches! I won't say everything I said to myself, but it was crap! Poor Justin, I feel for him, I might have used the same words,anyway I did not hear him, despite listening twice, otherwise I would have burst out laughing. As I did when you wrote the first letter of a certain word. Sometimes,I use that word in writing but with stars, because there are two words which are applicable,one acceptable and one bad. Somewords can be quite funny,if they are said naturally.It is only if they are mentioned in a vicious way, that it is horrid. I think you are much maligned at Newsnight, and do not always get the praise you deserve. Jennifer W

  • 18.
  • At 05:21 PM on 09 Sep 2006,
  • Jennifer Watts wrote:

Peter Barron, Editor, Newsnight.
I have just spent a fairly long time sympathising with you on some of the rotten comments you have been getting, on the piece just written, and on other pieces on Newsnight. Twice, my comments have been whipped away for perusal - I cannot write it again, it was reasonably witty and that will not come across anymore. So, I will finish by saying you and your team have been much maligned, unnecessarily - have I got the spelling right? I think poor old Justin deserves a good laugh for what he said and all his medals restored.
Kind regards, Jennifer W.

What, I wonder, do people make of the news that CBS ran into problems with their documentary, 'which began as a quest to follow a rookie firefighter on an ordinary day but resulted in the only known video of the first plane striking the World Trade Center and horrific and inspiring scenes of rescue, escape and death' because they refused to censor the language used by the firefighters?

  • 20.
  • At 10:45 AM on 10 Sep 2006,
  • Richard wrote:

My daughter recently injured herself due to her discovery of inappropriate words on an internet website such as this.

I am now appealing to the government to ban these dangerous websites & send the sick viewers of such words to prison, where they so rightly belong.

I've spoken to Home Office minister Vernon Croaker, and he provided some encouragement.

  • 21.
  • At 02:13 AM on 11 Sep 2006,
  • Jenny wrote:

...should Newsnight's on-line persona be exactly the same as that on TV?

As near as possible, yes, unless there is some reason you think they should be different. The more permanent nature of the Web for example. But I suspect oyur problem is not knowing what Newsnight is supposed to be, as illustrated by an earlier posting where you were obsessing about target audiences, using meaningless groupings. Surely Newsnight is BBC television's sole, late-evening, terrestrial, moderately intelligent news and current affairs show, with some arts coverage on Fridays? Intelligent people are a bit varied surely? They aren't po-faced, usually. They are inventive in their language, observant of others' language, and flexible. Some have dyslexia, some English only as a second (or lesser) language. They totally cross age, race, politics, sex, sexuality, gender, nationality. Cater for people with a moderately intelligent interest in news, current affairs and the arts, online and on air, and you'll be fine.

  • 22.
  • At 02:56 AM on 11 Sep 2006,
  • Jenny wrote:

A few of you have been writing on the blog complaining that some of your comments have been censored and asking why. In short, I don't know. On Newsnight, we censor nothing that appears on the site, but we do employ an outside moderating company who check for, among other things, "profane, abusive or threatening language"

If you employ them then you need to find out what they are doing and change it. Are they paid to let through multiple copies of postings? Are they paid to censor things to their own personal tastes, or is it sometimes because they think they'll lose the contract if stuff is critical of the BBC? They are your agents, and you are responsible for them. Take responsiblity. Please.

And what is the situation with postings in response to the copies of your blog on the main BBC Editors site? Does that go through the same moderators, or different ones? Stuff definitely disappears there, and no one replies to emails from the onpage form asking why. No one ever replies to any emails from there, whatever the topic.

Jenny (22). Yes, you're right. As a result of the feedback we've had on problems with posting and items not appearing we will be chasing these problems up.

Tim (15). We're becoming less obscure all the time - about 70,000 visited this forum last week. But compared to the million odd who stay up to watch Newsnight every night, reading my responses to queries far down a discussion thread is still a minority pursuit.


  • 24.
  • At 09:22 PM on 11 Sep 2006,
  • miika wrote:

Maybe you should mention your IBS more often, that always brings in readers I'm told :)

  • 25.
  • At 03:03 AM on 12 Sep 2006,
  • Sheepish wrote:

I don't find swearing on tv uncomfortable. It illustrates life, and essentailly is a form of expression. However, I would feel uncomfortable using such words with a youngster. If you (as the adult) use it in conversation with a child, that simply confirms to the child that it is acceptable when really, in everyday language with people you don't know very well, use of such words isn't acceptable.

Saying that though...I find the spelling by some of the contributors here much more offensive :-)

  • 26.
  • At 08:01 AM on 12 Sep 2006,
  • Charlene wrote:

Reporters and presenters should not use obscenities or profanity when presenting the news, but I think it's wrong-headed to censor the subjects of their reporting. If a newsmaker's words are important, they should be broadcast in their entirety with absolutely no bowdlerization whatsoever.

Censoring newsmakers because somebody doesn't like their language is nothing but falsifying history so that parents don't have to properly supervise their children. The news is not for infants, and real life isn't sweet and non-threatening.

re. Chris's comment above

Sorry you find the lighting on Newsnight location interviews to be "absolutely terrible, unforgivable" and even "the pits"

A lot of care and time goes into lighting these interviews. We try to make them distinctive and engaging as they are a key element in the visual identity of the programme.

Its quite a shock for me and my cameraman/woman colleagues at Newsnight to find we've been falling so far short of the standards you're used to Chris. Perhaps you could explain just what it is we're getting wrong (an example would help) so we can avoid offending your ascetic values so much in future.

Tony Jolliffe
Newsnight location cameraman

  • 28.
  • At 02:56 PM on 12 Sep 2006,
  • J Westerman wrote:

I might excuse foul language as an alternative to violence. I deplore the fact that the entertainment industry discovered that it makes money.
The language of today is a disgrace. I look forward to decency becoming profitable.

  • 29.
  • At 01:30 PM on 22 Sep 2006,
  • Emily wrote:

Richard (no. 20) - This seems a rather off-topic post and suggests that people who look at a profanity in written form are somehow 'wrong' and acting outside the law. Obviously this is incorrect.

I'm sorry to hear your daughter has suffered in some way due to her internet useage; however I cannot understand how this could be connected to seeing a fairly low-key swear word. This topic is becoming sensationalised and doesn't seem to be adding to anyone's knowledge of, or genuine open-minded consideration of this subject.

  • 30.
  • At 05:06 AM on 04 Aug 2007,
  • mark longhurst wrote:

To Jolliffe I simply say " No way Jean-Luc."

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