THE DAILY GRUNT

 

A SURVEY OF BAD LANGUAGE IN FILMS ON TERRESTRIAL TELEVISION From January to June 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'.

 

D

uring the 2003 Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championship Greg Rusedski uttered a number of "audible obscenities" before the conclusion of his second round match. For this the All England Tennis Club fined him $2,500. Mr Rusedski's displeasure was covered widely in the media and one newspaper printed his outburst in its entirety.

 

It also led to a much wider debate about bad language and whether, 'in this day and age', we should be concerned at all about bad language, regarded by some now as commonplace and unexceptional. It is argued glibly that 'times have changed' and, as a society, we are no longer concerned about obscene words and phrases that most certainly caused offence in the past.

 

In interviews mediawatch-uk officials blamed film and television for contributing significantly to the revolution that has normalised obscene language in the forty or so years since the f*** word was first used on television. The evidence in this report shows, far from there being a natural evolution in language, there has been a consistent effort to promote obscenity, swearing and profanity against the wishes of most people.

 

It is well known that the viewing and listening public generally dislikes the transmission into their homes of bad language which gives rise to a very great deal of offence. This is particularly so with regard to the use of holy names (Jesus and/or Christ) used as expletives.

 

The broadcasters have known this for many years and we recall, for example, that the Annan Committee, which published a report on the Future of Broadcasting more than twenty five years ago, concluded, from the correspondence received, that bad language on television was the cause of considerable and widespread public offence.

 

REGULATION

 

T

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, however, 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'.

 

FINDINGS

 

I

n this report a total of 60 films shown on the five terrestrial television channels from January to June 2003 are analysed for bad language. Of the 60 films 6 were shown on BBC1, 2 on BBC2, 11 on ITV1, 16 on Channel 4 and 25 on five.

 

With the exception of 'Guinevere' on BBC2, all of the films have been shown previously and some up to seven times in the last ten years. This again indicates that the Code and Guidelines are ignored and that there is a degree of intransigence that is inappropriate for broadcasting organisations claiming a 'public service' remit.

 

We acknowledge that this is only a small proportion of the total of 1396 films shown in the period and all except one, 'Nadine', were shown at or later that 9.00pm.

 

In one film, 'Point Break' the volume and speed of the bad language was such that not all of it could be recorded.

 

We have focused, firstly, on two words 'S***' and 'F***' and their derivatives, because these are by far the most common swear words used in the films in this survey. Secondly, we have focused on Holy Names Jesus and/or Christ because the broadcasting Codes and Guidelines specifically mention them.

 

 

FILM TITLE

CHANNEL

DATE

TIME

'S***'

'F***'

'Jesus' /

'Christ'

Sleeping With The Enemy

ITV1

3.01.03

12.00m't

4

2

1

Suspect

C5

4.01.03

9.00pm

8

2

 

Boiling Point

BBC1

10.01.03

12.50am

19

 

6

Colors

ITV1

10.01.03

12.35am

13

53

1

Freeway

C4

10.01.03

1.30am

14

52

 

Mean Streets

ITV1

11.01.03

12.20am

17

28

5

Midnight Express

C5

20.01.03

10.35pm

13

16

4

Breathless

C5

21.01.03

11.25pm

8

10

1

Manhunter

C4

1.02.03

10.05pm

1

5

3

Pretty Woman

ITV1

4.02.03

9.00pm

6

2

 

Dirty Harry

C5

12.02.03

9.00pm

3

1

5

Sleepers

C4

16.02.03

10.00pm

12

35

 

Mallrats

BBC1

17.02.03

12.50am

31

27

9

Bitter Moon

C4

26.02.03

11.35pm

4

11

7

Basic Instinct

C5

27.02.03

10.00pm

7

17

2

The Russia House

ITV1

4.03.03

12.15am

7

 

6

Demolition Man

C5

5.03.03

9.00pm

21

13

 

White Men Can't Jump

C5

9.0303

9.00pm

53

90

2

Cadillac Man

C5

15.03.03

2.10am

32

26

3

Black Widow

C4

16.03.03

12.00m't

3

 

3

Jumpin' Jack Flash

C4

16.0303

2.00am

8

 

4

Rising Sun

C5

16.03.03

9.00pm

22

29

5

Striking Distance

C5

17.03.03

9.00pm

13

10

2

Black Rain

C5

19.03.03

9.00pm

12

 

3

Gunmen

C5

20.03.03

10.10pm

9

15

3

The Color Of Money

ITV1

25.03.03

11.30pm

11

9

7

Goodfellas

C5

28.03.03

10.00pm

 

212

4

Buster

C5

29.03.03

11.10pm

3

 

13

Gun Crazy

C5

29.03.03

2.00am

10

8

8

Pink Cadillac

C5

5.04.03

10.55pm

8

1

1

Blue Steel

C4

7.04.03

12.05am

12

21

5

Clockers

BBC2

11.04.03

11.35pm

37

94

 

Billy Bathgate

C5

18.0403

10.00pm

6

7

2

American Graffiti

ITV1

21.04.03

12.50am

11

 

10

Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead

C4

21.04.03

12.25am

22

80

1

Heathers

C4

23.04.03

12.15am

13

15

4

Fortress

C5

24.04.03

10.10pm

14

19

1

Point Break

C5

5.05.03

9.00pm

17

31

8

Raging Bull

C4

5.05.03

12.05am

10

88

4

Body Heat

BBC1

10.05.03

11.25pm

6

9

7

Double Impact

C5

11.05.03

9.00pm

5

7

1

Rapid Fire

C5

16.05.03

9.00pm

11

11

5

Escape From New York

C4

17.05.03

9.05pm

8

2

1

Nadine

C5

18.05.03

1.10pm

8

 

 

Universal Soldier

C5

18.05.03

9.00pm

7

4

4

Alien 3

C4

22.05.03

10.40pm

16

12

2

Fatal Beauty

BBC1

25.05.03

11.50pm

26

1

12

Internal Affairs

C5

26.05.03

9.00pm

8

24

 

Mississippi Burning

ITV1

31.05.03

12.30am

9

7

 

Reservoir Dogs

C4

1.06.03

11.15pm

39

197

10

Southern Comfort

C5

4.06.03

9.00pm

27

1

3

No Escape

BBC1

6.06.03

11.25pm

7

 

1

City Slickers

C4

14.06.03

9.35pm

17

 

3

Total Recall

BBC1

14.06.03

10.25pm

19

24

 

Guinevere

BBC2

15.06.03

11.55pm

1

8

1

Fatal Attraction

C4

19.06.03

11.10pm

3

4

3

Sea Of Love

ITV1

20.06.03

11.00pm

8

 

3

Tequila Sunrise

ITV1

27.06.03

12.45am

13

11

7

Bad Boys

C4

28.06.03

10.35pm

62

76

2

Stakeout

ITV1

28.06.03

10.20pm

13

2

13

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the 60 films the word S*** and its derivatives occurred 827 times, the word F*** and its derivatives occurred 1429 times and JESUS and/or CHRIST used as expletives occurred 221 times

 

Derivatives include:

 

S*** HEAD, SH***Y, BULL S***, HORSE S***, CHICKEN S***, HOLY S***.

F***ED, F***ER, F***ING, MOTHER F***ER.

 

Other swear words used less frequently as terms of abuse or insult were:

 

A*SE, A*SE HOLE, B*STARD, B*GGER, C*CKSUCKER, P*ICK, W*NKER.

 

In some films most of the bad language is used by:

 

Police officers, detectives, women, youths and, sometimes, children.

 

In most films bad language is associated with violent criminal action or in dramatic scenes or moments of high tension but a great deal is also used in conversation. Most bad language is entirely gratuitous and indicates a limited vocabulary, a very poor grasp of the English language and sets a very bad example. Very little can be justified honestly on the grounds of authenticity or context.

 

In 'Freeway' one character is asked "Do you suck cock?"; in 'Guncrazy' a character calls out "Hey, sperm bank"; in 'Internal Affairs' a character says "She liked it in the fucking arse"; in 'Nadine' an insulting term of racial abuse "no good shitless white trash" is used.

 

Thankfully, the use of the word 'C***' remains rare occurring only once in 'Mean Streets' and once in 'Things to do in Denver when You're Dead'.

 

The volume of bad language, which can be obscene, abusive and insulting, is incomprehensible and can only be explained by a desire among some film makers to undermine the English language. The use of the word 'SHIT' in various contexts, instead of proper descriptive words, adds weight to this general conclusion. For example: "You don't know shit", "That don't mean shit", "I ain't takin' that shit from you".

 

MEDIA ILLITERACY!

 

T

he effect of this on educational standards and communication skills has been devastating. Walk down any high street, sit on any train or bus and it is evident that 'f***' words are used in normal conversation among people without the slightest regard for those around them. It is also an integral element of the aggressive anti social behaviour that the Government and wider society is at pains to combat with ever tougher punitive measures.

 

It was recently reported (Daily Mail 3 July 2003) that a fourteen year old girl said to a teacher:

 

"I told you, sad bitch, if you can't be bothered to teach us, you can just f*** off."

 

Moreover, the National Literacy Trust recently reported (Daily Mail 2 June 2003) that "youngsters raised on a diet of television and computer games are to be given speaking lessons". Experts blame the decline in language skills on today's 'daily grunt' culture in which parents let their children spend hours in front of the television or computer instead of talking to them. This initiative will undoubtedly place an additional burden on educational resources that would not have to be spent if television, in particular, improved the language it uses to communicate with audiences.

 

The Broadcasting Standards Commission recently reported that children are watching up to two-and-a-half hours of television each day and for more than three quarters of the time young viewers watch programmes made for adults. (The Times 10 June 2003). This is hardly surprising since many children have their own television sets and video recorders which they tend to watch in their own rooms and without supervision.

 

In recent years greater emphasis has been placed on advising viewers in warnings, before programmes begin, that "strong" language is included, sometimes "from the outset". Whilst this is helpful to those wanting to avoid offence, this way of justifying bad language is no good if the warning is missed.

 

We note that some daily newspapers and weekly programme magazines provide rudimentary information on the content of films. In the week from 12-18 July 2003, for example, 30 out of 56 films shown on the five terrestrial TV channels included violence, sex scenes, nudity, swearing and drug abuse. Radio Times advises viewers - no doubt in an attempt to promote 'media literacy' - that some of this content has been "edited"!

 

However, many other programmes falling within the broad genre of "reality" also include "strong" language. It is not an uncommon experience now to switch across channels in an evening to find that all programmes at or after 9.00pm are prefaced by warnings of "strong language", even in programmes where it would not be expected. For example the recent Channel 4 series 'Jamie's Kitchen'.

 

A range of programmes are prefaced by warnings about "strong language" including 'Apply Immediately', BBC2, 28 May, 'State of Play', BBC1, 22 June, 'Bernard's Bombay Dream', Channel 4, 26 June, 'Club Reps', ITV1, 3 July, 'Porn: a family business', Channel 4, 3 July.

 

A letter to The Times, 26/5/2003, made a similar observation and said:

 

"To call offensive expletives 'strong language' is to imbue them with a spurious glamour. There is nothing strong about swearing. Perhaps the television authorities should consider saying: 'The following programme contains gratuitously offensive language'. Or better still, eliminate the 'strong' language altogether."

 

We recall that the former chairman of the BBC Governors, Lord Hussey of North Bradley, gave a public undertaking in February 1988 to:

 

"take firm steps to eradicate unnecessary and gratuitous violence, sex and bad language from our programmes".

 

An undertaking that has yet to be fulfilled!

 

PURCHASING POWER

 

B

ad language on television has become such a frequent occurrence that it is virtually impossible on some evenings to avoid it except by switching off the television altogether. We have no sympathy for BBC Information officials who say to correspondents who protest:

 

"The BBC is a public service financed by the licence fee, and as such must provide films which cater for the whole range of legitimate tastes in film today as the supply of feature films designed for family viewing diminishes "

 

The broadcasters have substantial budgets available for feature films and they should surely exercise some of their purchasing power by refusing to buy the television rights of films that are likely to offend public feeling.

 

The present level of obscene, abusive and insulting language on television is unacceptable and out of step with public expectations, as established by the regulators in their own research. We therefore call upon the broadcasters to take immediate meaningful steps to substantially reduce the volume of swearing and profanity in television programmes.

 

mediawatch-uk very much welcomes the recent announcement by J D Weatherspoons that they will ban drinkers who use foul language in their public houses. Let us hope that broadcasters and others will follow this brave and courageous lead.

 

Click here for 'The Daily Grunt' news release

 

Click here for The Daily Grunt Part 2

 

Click here for Swearing on TV historical and regulatory perspectives

 

Click here for Joining Form

 

Click here for mediawatch-uk directory

 

Now 'TV children' must be taught to speak

Y

oungsters raised on a diet of television and computer games are to be given speaking lessons. Ministers are planning the extra instruction for children who cannot talk properly by the time they start school. Experts blame the decline in language skills on today's 'daily grunt' culture in which parents let their children spend hours in front of the television or computer instead of talking to them.

Daily Mail 2/6/2003

For news and information visit: www.nationalliteracytrust.org.uk

John Beyer, Director of mediawatch-uk said today that the broadcasters can no longer shirk from their responsibilities in this regard. "In an age of sophisticated global communications it is extraordinary that this problem among our children has arisen. The onus is surely on programme makers and presenters to improve their speech and set good example so that communications skills improve. This is a matter that simply cannot be passed over to parents and teachers: the influential media must play its part in undoing some of the damage caused.

 

This visual junk diet of soaps, smut and vulgar language

 

Writing 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."