Swearing on TV – historical and regulatory perspectives


Historical Press reports


Viewers still take offence at swearing on television



idespread concern about bad language on television persists, the Broadcasting Standards Council said yesterday, but one four letter Anglo-Saxon swear word beginning with F is rapidly losing its power to shock.  ‘The F-word is now used in private conversations by professors and is becoming steadily and rapidly drained of force,” said Lord Rees-Mogg, council chairman.  A list of unacceptable words has been compiled, in order of their power to shock, in a survey by the Council of 300 viewers.  At his briefing in London yesterday, Lord Rees-Mogg disclosed that the C-word came top of the list, followed by two American-derived graphically sexual terms of abuse, the M-phrase and another C-phrase.  The F-word ranked fifth.  The Broadcasting Standards Council’s report ‘A Matter of Manners?’ disclosed that most people think there is too much swearing on television.  Lord Rees-Mogg felt that the “offensive M-word should never be heard on TV”.  As bad language regularly tops the list of complaints against both the BBC and ITV, broadcasters will not be surprised at the Council’s findings.


Daily Telegraph 25/10/1991


Foul-mouthed films worry watchdog



elevision programmes and films imported from the United States have a fifth more violence than those made in Britain and are three times more likely to include bad language, according to a Broadcasting Standards Council report.  Satellite movie channels contain twice as many violent incidents per hour than the BBC, ITV or Channel 4, the report on violence, sex and language shows.


The Times 27/1/1994


Expletives in need of deletion



he Broadcasting Standards Council has drawn attention to the steady increase in the use of bad language on out television screens.  In one year, the average frequency of swear-words has risen from 6.9 per hour to 7.6, and one of the fastest growing is the use of “Christ!” as an expletive.  The trend is disturbing.


Daily Telegraph 27/1/1994  EDITORIAL


TV makers turn deaf ear to issue of bad language



ad language on television is an issue of concern which broadcasters have failed to recognise, the annual report of the Broadcasting Standards Commission said yesterday.  The report reveals a record number of complaints from viewers and listeners, and a 50 per cent rise in the number of complaints upheld.  Protests about bad language increased by 60 per cent.  The Council said that despite discussions with broadcasters at very senior levels, it “remained puzzled at the apparent inability of the broadcasters to recognize the isses.  Whilst some bad language may well be warranted by the context in which it occurs, it should be noted that it may also appear to be gratuitous, causing a level of offence which can sometimes appear hard to explain or excuse”, the report said.  Imported programmes often contained high levels of bad language, which many viewers regarded as a form of aggressive behaviour.”   Lady Howe, the council chairman, said: “There is a feeling that bad language has become normalised … it is debasing the English language and acts against using the wonderful range of words.”


Daily Telegraph 22/7/1994


TV viewers turned off by sex and swearing



omplaints about the broadcasting of explicit sex scenes, as well as violence and gratuitous bad language, have risen dramatically in the past year, according to an independent watchdog.  In its annual report published yesterday, the Broadcasting Standards Council said that complaints had risen by more than 30 per cent. It noted the public’s alarm at the constant erosion of taste boundaries and gave warning of the dangers of a “descent towards the tacky and falsely sensationalist”.  Lady Howe, its chairman, said there was little justification for the frequency with which bad language was allowed to offend a significant part of the audience.


The Times 12/7/1995


TV bosses defend bad language in Potter swansong



wo of British television’s most powerful men yesterday defended the use of bad language in Dennis Potter’s final dramas completed last year, six weeks before his death.  Michael Grade, chief executive of Channel 4, dismissed as hysteria concern about swearing in Karaoke and Cold Lazarous, labelling it “pretty perverse”.  Mr Grade said: “These programmes are going out after 9.00pm.  The question is, what is the writer’s intention adding that Dennis Potter always used language with care and precision.  Alen Yentob, the controller of BBC1, said the use of swear words was an element, one doesn’t sit there counting them.  Its an ambitious piece of work”.


Daily Telegraph 16/4/1996


Unease rises over swearing on TV



he Broadcasting Standards Council called for talks with television companies yesterday to discuss growing public concern about rising levels of bad language.  Lady Howe of Aberavon, chairman of the Council, said there had been a steady increase in audience anxiety about swearing and blasphemy during the past four years.  The council’s annual monitoring report showed that 28 per cent of viewers were concerned about swearing on television, up from 26 per cent.


The Times 12/6/1996


BBC defends Connolly over swearing



 series by Billy Connolly contained so much swearing that complaints to the BBC for the last quarter rose by almost 500 per cent.  His Tour of Australia attracted 58 complaints about bad language after it was broadcast in October on BBC1.  The figure represents almost one-fifth of all complaints to the BBC and is a massive rise from the last quarter.  But the corporation dismissed them, saying that it was a late-night programme and a warning had been broadcast.  John Birt, the Director General, said: “These complaints must be set against the fact that a large audience thoroughly enjoyed a series which gave scope to one of Britain’s funniest comedians”.


Daily Telegraph 20/2/1997


TV violence, sex and swearing at record level



iolence, sex and swearing on television have reached record levels, according to a report by the Broadcasting Standards Commission.  More nude scenes are being broadcast and light entertainment programmes are increasingly using bad language, the report says.  The commission found that more than a quarter of incidents of swearing occurred before 9pm and the worst offenders were satellite broadcasters, which regularly breached the watershed for sex, violence and swearing.  Three quarters of the satellite programmes monitored by the commission contained bad language – close to a 50 per cent increase on the previous year.


The Times 29/1/2001


Cut TV filth



odern movies contain so much bad language that watchdogs are demanding a massive reduction in its use.  They monitored the use of the f-word 1,429 times in just 60 films shown on TV this year alone.  The four-letter deluge also included 827 uses of the word "sh*t" and its derivatives as well as 221 exclamations of "Jesus!" or "Christ!" which research has shown also offends many viewers.  But it is the explosion of the f-word - and variations on it - that shocked even the most hardened researchers for the TV watchdog organisation mediawatch-uk


Daily Express 16/7/2003


News Flash: 

ITV Teletext Poll, 17/7/2003, asked if swearing on television was offensive. 

2,723 voted, 96% said 'YES', 4% said 'NO'.


This visual junk diet of soaps, smut and vulgar language



riting in the Daily Mail 17/7/2003 Yasmin Alibhai-Brown noted that "there are still people who care enough to monitor and complain about the way our national language has been so debased in recent years by the purveyors of popular culture, the mediawallahs, film makers and the ultra cool creators of pop music."


"As someone from the Left, I am not expected to object to the spread of bad language and other squalid habits infecting our society … There are many of us today on the Left who can see that something precious, possibly unrecoverable, is being destroyed and that we have a responsibility to try to stop this dissolution … The corruption of language in public culture is just one aspect of the general coarsening of life which is taking us down into the pits.  Television, in particular, has now reached such depths it is hard to imagine where it can go next.  If, as I did recently, you try to debate this genuine anxiety, felt by millions, with the highly placed men and women who are responsible for British TV, they will not engage except with majestic disdain and superciliousness.  Or they react with fearful paranoia as if we wanted to shut down the whole business and force the nation into bible-reading every evening.  It is time, I believe, to take an honest look at all television output.  Never in our history have British children had such relentless, often third rate, shrill and brainless television programming that they are offered today.   It was Aristotle who said that law makers should be extremely careful about indecent language 'for the light utterance of shameful words leads soon the shameful actions'.  Maybe if we had been more vigilant with the words, much of the depressing coarsening of life could have been avoided."



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Regulation of bad language



hat the broadcasting authorities apparently regard the matter seriously is evident from the way the subject is treated in the Codes and Guidelines.  The frequency and worsening nature of bad language in programmes, identified in monitoring conducted by mediawatch-uk, indicates how little attention is paid to them.


The BBC's Producers' Guidelines, currently in force, recognises that:


"strong language is a subject of deep concern to many people and is one of the most frequent causes of complaint."  However, it goes on "in the right context strong language may cause little offence and in some situations it may be wholly justified in the interests of authenticity … Offence is often caused by the casual use of names considered holy by believers, for example the use of 'Jesus Christ' or 'God' or of names held holy by other faiths … Certain, mainly four-letter, words must not be used … without advance reference to and approval from Channel or Network Controllers of domestic services …"


The Programme Code of the Independent Television Commission, issued in April 2001, states:


"There is no absolute ban on the use of bad language.  But many people are offended, some of them deeply, by the use of bad language, including expletives with a religious (and not only Christian) association.  Offence is most likely if the language is contrary to audience expectation.  Bad language must be defensible in terms of context and scheduling with warnings where appropriate."


The Code of Guidance of the Broadcasting Standards Commission issued in June 1998 suggests that:


"the use of language of all kinds is never static … and … levels of offence undergo constant change … There is also a concern that, in constant use, expletives can represent an impoverishment of language and a barrier to communication"


It goes on:


"Research has indicated that audiences consider the use of bad language to be unacceptable in certain circumstances and its repetitive use was disliked by 86% of respondents."


In 1991 the Broadcasting Standards Council (as it was then called) undertook a survey of public attitudes to broadcasting language and published a monograph entitled 'A Matter of Manners?'  This monograph set out to analyse public perceptions and to discover the degree of offence caused by 'bad language'.  Most respondents agreed that swearing 'in extremis' is understandable and therefore somewhat justifiable than in every day conversation.  Distinctions were made between 'mild' and 'strong' words and how different age groups regarded bad language.  A similar study, published in June 1999, found that bad language before the 9.00pm watershed is strongly disapproved of and half the sample in the survey think there is "too much" bad language on television.


In the Independent Television Commission's Annual Report for 2002 it is recorded that a total of 295 programme complaints concerned language.  It should be noted that this figure does not include complaints sent to ITV companies.  Only 20 of these were considered by the ITC to breach the Programme Code indicating a serious weakness in the Code and in its interpretation.  The Annual Report for 2001 showed a total of 172 complaints about language, the Report for 2000 showed a total of 186 complaints, which, at around 5% of the total, remained constant.


We acknowledge that the number of complaints sent to the ITC is small relative to the number of viewers.  However, this is to be expected because the viewing public is never invited to comment upon programmes.  Moreover, on the rare occasions when the ITC reminds ITV viewers that it is there to "ITC some common sense" it implies that viewers can trust it to regulate effectively.  Those who do complain have to go to some trouble to find the address and telephone number for the ITC, which is not advertised in such sporadic 'public information' commercials.


The Broadcasting Standards Commission in its Annual Review of 2002 states:


"Swearing and offensive language continue to provide a substantial postbag for the Commission.  This often relates to the use of mild or medium-rated swearwords prior to the Watershed.  Although the Commission understands that some swearing can occur in error, broadcasters should take account of the preferences of viewers, particularly when it comes to pre-Watershed viewing.  We have also received a number of complaints about the gratuitous, post-Watershed use of swearwords that many consider to be the strongest in use.  Whilst the Commission has, on occasion, accepted the justification for the use of such language, it continues to urge broadcasters to guard against the casual and gratuitous use of swearing."


Such a request would be vested with meaning if the Commission upheld more justifiable complaints about bad language on television.


Overall the BSC upholds only about 10% of complaints.  This means that even fewer complaints about bad language are upheld on grounds that have nothing to do with the language that has caused the complaint.  For example, 'a warning was given', 'the programme was scheduled late at night', or in the opinion of the BSC 'it was unlikely to have caused widespread offence'.  This creates the impression to film and TV programme makers that the inclusion of bad language in is unlikely to lead to regulatory intervention or sanction.


The record of the Broadcasting Standards Council/Commission in failing to uphold complaints tells its own story.  Complaints about bad language in the following selection of films were not upheld:


'The Accused', 'Cocktail', '48 Hours', 'Revenge', 'Internal Affairs', 'The Cook, the thief, his wife and her lover', 'Lethal Weapon', 'Basic Instinct', 'The Doors', 'Homicide', 'Rita, Sue and Bob Too', 'JFK', 'Final Analysis', 'Breathless', 'The Bodyguard', 'Rapid Fire', 'Mortal Thoughts', 'China O'Brien', 'Thelma and Louise', 'Bandit Queen', 'Year of the Gun', 'Reservoir Dogs', 'I.D.', 'Blue Collar', 'Pulp Fiction'.