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Sorry for not swearing

David Kermode | 16:58 UK time, Friday, 24 November 2006

How times change. There now follows a sort of apology. An apology for NOT using a swear word.

Breakfast logoThis morning the leader of the Conservative Party joined us on the Breakfast sofa, ostensibly to talk about poverty. After about four minutes talking about how to define, and how potentially to help, those "less fortunate" the conversation turned to other matters (you can see for yourself by clicking here).

When we're joined by a political leader, we often move the conversation on to talk about other pertinent issues and this morning was no exception. But this morning felt a bit different. This morning we wanted to talk about tossers.

David Cameron had been invited on to talk about poverty, so were we being fair asking him about the Tories' latest stab at "viral marketing". Of course we were. Mr Cameron made no complaint about it and my boss - the head of TV news, Peter Horrocks, was positively delighted.

However, there was some soul searching afterwards about whether we'd tackled it the right way. You see we didn't actually use the word "tosser". We skirted around it, fearing that it was too rude for a breakfast audience. We're a family programme and we're closer to the end of the watershed than to the start of it. We had a swearing episode a year ago; admittedly involving a word that begins with F and is much worse than tosser. That caused a huge stink, led to one of my more embarrassing Newswatch performances and went all the way to Ofcom, who fortunately didn't uphold the complaint.

So we're probably a bit nervy about bad words. But should we be? The boss's point is that if the naughty word is Mr Cameron's then it is he, not us, who are open to the charge of coarsening the debate. Who are we to censor that debate?

This approach surprised some of the production team, who feel that talking about tossers at ten to eight might be a step too far for the Breakfast audience, regardless of who is choosing to use the word. I suspect the very fact that the Conservative Party thinks it's acceptable to engage in a debate about whether someone is being a tosser means the opposition party may have moved on a little faster than we have.

Next time, we won't be so careful...


  • 1.
  • At 05:42 PM on 24 Nov 2006,
  • Ben wrote:

You might want to have started off with the dictionary when you made the decision. Despite the word's probable origins, the OED does not define it as a swearword, but as slang: "A term of contempt or abuse for a person; a ‘jerk’".

  • 2.
  • At 08:29 PM on 24 Nov 2006,
  • Clare wrote:

Well, I think you were incredibly effective in helping to promote the viral ad the Conservatives put out. I couldn't help but immediately log on to see what unspeakable word they had used, and was underwhelmed to see it was 'tossers'.

  • 3.
  • At 09:00 PM on 24 Nov 2006,
  • Ian Collings wrote:

I didn't actually hear this contentious remark - I should have been at work but actually over-slept - but Cameron risks having the word rebound on him!

'Tosser' is not a swear-word; it's an insult.

  • 5.
  • At 09:55 PM on 24 Nov 2006,
  • Philip wrote:

David, There is rather a large hole in this argument. This 'advert' was aimed at people borrowing money - which is an exclusively adult exercise.

And it is using the internet - a no holds barred medium which parents know they have to control.

Parents don't have this sort of control over Breakfast TV. Swearing is rather like smoking - okay if everyone has given their consent. If not, then you still need to mind your language.

I'm no prude, but having to put with swearing which is shouted, not spoken, on public transport is even more annoying than putting up with smoking or loud music nearby.

  • 6.
  • At 10:57 PM on 24 Nov 2006,
  • JG wrote:

"talking about tossers at ten to eight might be a step too far for the Breakfast audience"

I sometimes listen to R4 in the morning and I hear lots of talking about/by tossers.

  • 7.
  • At 11:31 PM on 24 Nov 2006,
  • Philip Murphy wrote:

So why didn't the presenters, during the interview (that I did watch), if he would like it to be shown uncensored?
He was allowed to skirt around that question by commenting on the fact that the said video is being used on the internet, when it was always bound to be featured on TV too.


If you could hear some of the words I shout at the radio in the morning then you wouldn't be worried about a word like that!

  • 9.
  • At 12:15 AM on 25 Nov 2006,
  • Michael wrote:

In my town centre last week I had the dubious experience of overhearing the loud exchange between two youths which contained a very high ratio of expletives beginning with "F", "C", "W" and your "T" word. In that context the "T" word was reduced to nothing more than yet another, rather mild, expletive. It was amazing that there did seem to be an exchange of ideas between the two lads. There was indeed a form of communication (but not as we know it Jim!) happening. In fact, I found it rather sad that their use of English appeared to be so restricted and handicaped that they must use these words as fillers in their conversation.

In the context of a morning radio broadcast, however, I find the use of any swear word quite jarring. It's not what I expect, nor want. Listening to English language being used to express the ideas and thoughts of the speaker goes beyond simple communication. It expands the listener's knowledge and experience of English.

So, please, err towards no swear words and give us the opportunity to hear and think about the ideas being exressed rather than stumble over these words.

I have absolutely no clue what a tosser is, although I guess it's not something you'd want to say around your grandmother.

In general, if you're supposed to put together a family friendly program, you need to keep away from the F-bombs and other bad words. Otherwise you're bound to lose a large portion of your audience.

  • 11.
  • At 12:42 PM on 25 Nov 2006,
  • Joanne Campbell wrote:

It wasn't so long ago that somebody high profile (I can't remember who now) said the F word, and I recall people being quite approving of the BBC not skittering around it in their report. How is it that all of a sudden, "tosser" is just too terrible to be confronted? I'm surprised Mr Cameron could say it with a straight face, considering how archaic it has become, at least in this part of the country. I agree the the beeb shouldn't be so careful in future.

  • 12.
  • At 03:56 PM on 25 Nov 2006,
  • Roger Levinson. wrote:

What is a tosser?

  • 13.
  • At 01:16 PM on 26 Nov 2006,
  • glj wrote:

What on earth prompted somebody to open a debate on the word "tossers" with David Camoron?

  • 14.
  • At 04:22 PM on 26 Nov 2006,
  • Manjit wrote:

Firstly I think you were correct not to use the word in the morning. Secondly why did you show the advert? Are there not rules on the number of adverts each of the parties can show on TV? The BBC is basically giving the Tory party free advertising, one could tell how delighted how Cameron was that the BBC had shown the advert.

  • 15.
  • At 08:38 PM on 26 Nov 2006,
  • Nicola Hale wrote:

Tosser is a swearword?

I really wouldn't have thought so. It's part of the vernacular, but surely in the same class as "damn," "plonker," or "slag".

As such, I'm not particularly interested in seeing David Cameron cooing delicately around the issue.

In fact, even if we were talking about a, shall we say, class A swearword, there are still hundreds of other issues I'd rather see the leader of the opposition discuss.. but then perhaps I'm not the target audience.

  • 16.
  • At 11:05 PM on 26 Nov 2006,
  • Paul Beckitt wrote:

Tosser is hardly the most offensive of swear words, and it's cringe-worthy watching the presenters trying to avoid using "that word" on the clip. It's made even worse by the fact that "that word" is used in the advert shown just before. Some common sense would be welcome.

  • 17.
  • At 05:21 PM on 28 Nov 2006,
  • Jenny wrote:

To be honest I couldn't believe that the presenters didn't realise that it made them look like tossers to switch from discussing poverty - with the young(ish) old-Etonian leader of the Conservative party, no less - to pressing him about a slightly suspect slang term used in one of his party's adverts intended only for the Net.

It was one of Breakfast's all too frequent toe-curling, cringe-making moments. Had they got bored with poverty? Couldn't they think of anything more to discuss about it? How did they think viewers living in poverty, or with friends or relatives living in poverty, or who have lived in poverty, would feel about their preference of topics faced with a man who is not only Margaret Thatcher's successor (just to remind you how many millions of British people she plunged into hopeless poverty for the enrichment of a few of her cronies), but a potential candidate for Prime Minister.

How would it have been, instead, if the phone lines had been opened to a few such people? Or perhaps the levels of state benefits - which claimants are told are what the law has laid down is how much they need to live, when it hasn't, and they have dropped dramatically relative to all the relevant indices over the last 25 years since Thatcher uncoupled them, and made people responsible for paying their own water bills, which then soared with privatisation - could have been discussed.

Or had Cameron laid down conditions that nothing such would happen? If he had then we should have been told. If he hadn't the switch of topics was almost libellous to him.

  • 18.
  • At 12:25 PM on 29 Nov 2006,
  • Philip wrote:

Sorry David, but having just seen John Prescott using the word 'tosser' at PMQs I retract my original comment as the genie is clearly out of the bottle...

  • 19.
  • At 10:42 AM on 30 Nov 2006,
  • marc woodland wrote:

I would agree with the OED that the word 'tosser' is a word of abuse not a swear word however it should not be used by the Politically Correct as strictly speaking it is of course SEXIST ! On further thought as neither JP or the Tories fall into that catagory thats OK then-totally in character. Love the ad guys- if we want comedians to run (rub) the country we know where to go.

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