Exploring attitudes to offensive language
30 September 2016
When the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan became the first man to use the 'F word' on live television, the uproar that followed included four censuring motions in the House of Commons.
That was 1965. Of course, society has changed greatly in the 51 years since, but people still expect standards to be maintained on TV and radio today. The question is, what should those standards be?
Our job at Ofcom is to set and enforce the rules that help protect viewers and listeners from harmful and offensive content on TV and radio. To do this, we must keep up to date with what people consider offensive, and what they expect of broadcasters.
As times change and people's attitudes shift, it's also important that broadcasting rules strike the right balance. Broadcasters need to be able to reflect real life situations, which viewers expect, while being mindful of what people consider offensive, and why.
So we have carried our most in-depth research yet into what audiences think about a wide range of offensive language, including newer and obscure terms, as well as offensive gestures.
This really matters, because TV and radio remain central parts of most people's daily lives. Whether we're at home, work or travelling in a car, most of us switch on or tune in at some point during the day.
In spite of the rise of on-demand viewing and listening, live TV continues to have the greatest reach of all media in the UK, with 92% of people watching each week. Also, nine in ten adults tune into the radio, listening for an average of three hours daily.
To help us capture the views of the wider population, our new research was based on a mixture of online surveys, focus groups and in-depth interviews. We heard from people of all age groups living across the UK. We listened to a broad cross-section of society to get an understanding of what people from all walks of life find offensive.
So what did we find? To start with, most people recognised the importance of the 9pm watershed on TV, and its role in protecting children. Before that time, content that's unsuitable for children is restricted.
Those taking part in our study felt the time of broadcast was most important when considering whether offensive language was acceptable in programmes. They tolerated some mildly offensive language before the watershed, but all agreed that offensive gestures – one finger, two fingers and worse - are not generally acceptable at that time.
Viewers and listeners also judge the tone and delivery of offensive language. Many participants say there is a clear divide between the emotional impact of discriminatory and racist words compared to 'general' swear words.
People draw the line at racist and discriminatory language. They feel it is both potentially the hardest hitting and the most unacceptable of all; most people see these words as derogatory and insulting. Many were concerned about them being used in programmes at any time, unless there's very clear justification for it in the programme and how it's presented to the audience.
Occasional, accidental strong language before 9pm was seen as more acceptable on live TV and radio than in pre-recorded material. People acknowledged it was sometimes hard for broadcasters to control live programmes, but they were less accepting if they felt broadcasters had acted carelessly or deliberately.
Interestingly, swearing substitutes, and the bleeping-out of offensive language, were viewed as less acceptable when used frequently. The research found that most people would often understand which word was being substituted, and so the effect was similar to using the actual word being used, especially if it was repeated.
All these findings will help us reach decisions when we investigate potentially offensive language in programmes.
Ofcom has a duty to apply standards which provide adequate protection to audiences from offensive and harmful content on TV and radio. If broadcasters air programmes that break the rules, we can impose sanctions on them, including fines.
So we'll share our findings with broadcasters, so they can better understand what today's audiences think about language used on TV and radio to help meet their expectations.
We're determined to ensure that TV and radio uphold the standards people expect, while reflecting the society in which they live. Viewers and listeners deserve nothing less.
Director of Content Standards, Licensing and Enforcement at Ofcom