22 September 2021

Public attitudes towards offensive language on TV and radio revealed

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  • Viewers and listeners more tolerant of accidental on-air swearing
  • Audiences more concerned about discriminatory language, with strong context and justification expected
  • Older programmes with potential for offence prompt mixed views, but many felt warnings should be used

Viewers and listeners have told Ofcom they are generally more relaxed about most swearing on TV and radio, particularly if it is accidental and an apology swiftly follows, according to our latest in-depth research study.

Audiences say they still want broadcasters to consider carefully when, and how, offensive language is used. But many people recognise that, in the right context, it can play an important role in programmes.

Participants in the study felt that, in line with freedom of expression, offensive words can be used to create dramatic impact, bring humour, reflect real life, or even to inform and educate.

In 2020, only 1% of total broadcasting complaints were about swearing. 8% of complaints were about racial discrimination.

They had limited concerns so long as the strongest language was broadcast after the watershed and parents were given sufficient warnings and information to help them decide what their children see and hear.

Timely, genuine apologies were also important to viewers and listeners in cases where offensive language was accidentally broadcast live on-air.

Discriminatory language and stereotypes

By comparison, audiences told us they had more serious concerns about discriminatory language on TV and radio – particularly around race.

In our focus groups, viewers and listeners pointed to the underlying attitudes that discriminatory language reflects, and had higher expectations about this being avoided, including during live broadcasts. Audiences said that, when strong forms of discriminatory language do appear in programmes, they expect broadcasters to do all they can to carefully put it into context and so protect viewers and listeners from the offence it can cause.

Opinions on older programmes containing potentially problematic content and language were mixed. Many participants said that they did not want to see these types of programmes disappear from screens completely – arguing that history should not be censored or sanitised and that audiences would be aware they were from a different era.

Other participants suggested that older programmes containing outdated views could cause unnecessary offence and reinforce stereotypes. Most participants agreed, however, that clear and specific warnings about the type of language and content that might cause offence were important in helping audiences make an informed choice.

People’s views on offensive language can change significantly over time. So to ensure we’re setting and enforcing our rules effectively, it’s essential we keep up to date with how viewers and listeners think and feel.

Broadcasters’ and audiences’ right to freedom of expression is important. These findings will help us to strike the right balance between protecting audiences – and children in particular – from unjustified offence, while still allowing broadcasters the creative freedom to reflect real life in their programmes.

Adam Baxter, Director of Standards and Audience Protection

How we will use the findings

This year, we’ve engaged with a larger and more diverse selection of viewers and listeners than ever before. This included more than 600 people of all ages and backgrounds, living throughout the UK, as well as those from a range of minority groups and communities. We also expanded our focus groups to include dedicated sessions with members of the Jewish and Chinese communities for the first time.

There is no absolute right not to be offended by things broadcast on TV and radio. Consistent with rights to freedom of expression, broadcasters can include material in their programmes that is potentially offensive – but, to stay within our rules, they must make sure they provide sufficient context and adequate protection to audiences.

These findings will help broadcasters to better understand audience expectations about the use of potentially offensive language in their programmes, and what steps they may need to take to protect viewers and listeners.

The report will also help Ofcom’s Standards and Audience Protection team to understand and take account of current audiences’ views when making decisions about potentially offensive language on TV and radio, while having full regard to freedom of expression.

We are today publishing a note to broadcasters (PDF, 179.9 KB) to alert them to the findings of our research.

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