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Our research into offensive language on TV and radio – why we do it and why it matters

Published: 22 September 2021
Last updated: 16 March 2023

Today we’ve published our latest research into people’s attitudes towards offensive language on TV and radio.

This research gives us an understanding of how people feel about language they might encounter in programmes that they watch or listen to. It can support broadcasters as they plan their content and helps us when we need to make decisions about potentially offensive language in programmes.

The findings in our research do not represent Ofcom’s views on offensive language – they are based on what people tell us about how they feel.

This year we spoke with a larger, more diverse selection of people than ever before, including more than 600 people of all ages and backgrounds from across the UK, as well as people from a range of minority groups and communities. We also researched the specific views towards offensive language of members of the Jewish and Chinese communities for the first time.

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

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A news release and full version of the research are available. Please note, this report contains – in full and uncensored – the language and terminology on which we asked people to give us their views. As such, some readers might be offended by some of the report’s content.

What we found

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

Our respondents had limited concerns about use of the strongest language, provided it 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 in cases where offensive language was accidentally broadcast.

However, audiences said they had more serious concerns about discriminatory language on TV and radio – particularly around race.

They pointed to the underlying attitudes that discriminatory language reflects, and had higher expectations about this being avoided. They told us 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 to help protect viewers and listeners from the offence it can cause.

Why it matters

Below, Adam Baxter, Ofcom Director, Standards and Audience Protection, explains the reasons for the research and how the findings can help broadcasters to make decisions about broadcasting offensive language and other content.

TV and radio are a big part of who we are as a nation – they’re central to our culture and collective identity, and never more so than during the last 18 months. With many of us forced to spend long periods at home, with limited opportunities to see friends and family, we’ve tuned in in record numbers to keep ourselves entertained and informed as a welcome distraction from the challenges of the pandemic.

Our broadcasters provide a huge range of drama, reality, comedy, documentaries and news programmes which can often prompt polarised reactions and emotions from audiences. People rightly expect certain standards on TV and radio – and that means having their say when they come across something that troubles them. That’s where we come in.

At Ofcom, one of our primary responsibilities is to set and enforce rules for broadcast television and radio – to protect audiences from harmful and offensive content, while respecting rights to freedom of expression. Viewers and listeners are at the centre of what we do. For our rules to remain relevant and effective, it’s important that we listen and understand first-hand what people find offensive and how attitudes change over time. Since our last wave of similar research five years ago, it’s been fascinating to see how tastes and tolerances have shifted or, indeed, stayed the same.

This year, we’ve engaged with a larger and more diverse selection of viewers and listeners than ever before. This included adults of all ages, living throughout the UK, as well as those from a range of minority groups and communities – including Black African and Caribbean people, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi people, disabled people, and the LGBTQ+ and Gypsy and Traveller communities. We also expanded our focus groups to include dedicated sessions with members of the Jewish and Chinese communities for the first time.

Audiences told us that, although they want broadcasters to give careful consideration to when and how offensive language is used on TV and radio, they stressed the important role it can play in broadcasting. Participants mentioned, for example, offensive language being used for dramatic impact, for humour, to reflect real life or to inform and educate. Our content assessors recognise this too, and we always apply our rules in a way that takes into account creative freedom and expression.

The research also shows an ongoing trend of increasingly relaxed attitudes about the use of swear words. Viewers and listeners had limited concerns, as long as the strongest language was broadcast after the watershed and parents were given sufficient information to inform their decisions about what their children could watch and listen to.

On the other hand, reflecting heightened societal concern, audiences told us they felt increasingly worried about discriminatory language, particularly around race. Viewers and listeners said they expect broadcasters to take the utmost care to carefully contextualise the strongest forms of discriminatory language to ensure that audiences are protected.

We also found, however, that many participants did not want to see all older, programmes containing potentially problematic content disappear from our screens completely. Again, audiences consistently stressed that context, in this respect, is key. What programme and channel was it broadcast on? And at what time? What would audiences of the channel expect? Was there a warning or other information given to viewers about potentially offensive content to help them make informed decisions about whether to switch off?

It’s important to remember that there is no absolute right not to be offended by things we see and hear 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 make these often finely balanced judgements and better inform their decisions about the broadcasting of offensive language and other content. The report also helps us at Ofcom understand and take account of audience’s views when making complex and nuanced decisions about potentially offensive content on TV and radio, while having full regard to freedom of expression.

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