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Tuesday, February 23, 2010 

Swearing and the news.

Is it really a news story when a news reader quotes a swear word? More ridiculous still is that Jeremy Paxman, after quoting Rawnsley quoting Brown screaming "How could you fucking do this to me" at Bob Shrum, his speech-writer, was instructed by his editor to apologise, although he rather admirably did it in around as half-hearted a fashion as possible. Anyone watching Newsnight was already likely to have read the coverage, and if anyone watching television at 10:30 is genuinely offended by someone quoting someone else saying fuck, they ought to turn the fucking thing off. Far more offensive in any case last night was John Prescott's faux apoplexy at Andrew Rawnsley daring to publish a book.

Quoting a politician or hanger-on swearing is probably the only thing the BBC doesn't have an active policy on. I can remember during the Hutton inquiry the Today programme quoting the section from Alastair Campbell's diary where he had written that the latest "evidence" they had uncovered would "fuck Gilligan", without it being censored or without any apology later being issued. Likewise, James Naughtie quoted President Bush's recorded conversation with Tony Blair back at Margaret Beckett during the Israel-Lebanon war, which contained Bush's observation that "Syria has got to stop all this shit", again without condemnation or apology. While constant, unimaginative swearing can be immature and suggests a limited vocabulary, quoting others swearing so that the record isn't sullied is also surely part of a recognition that your audience isn't a bunch of 10-year-olds who giggle at naughty words. It's instructive then that the Telegraph doesn't allow swearing in any form in its pages, the stern edict of style editor Simon Heffer, while the Guardian is supposedly the most expletive-filled newspaper on the planet. The paper's style guide justification is difficult to argue with:

"We are more liberal than any other newspapers, using language that our competitors would not. But even some readers who agree with Lenny Bruce that 'take away the right to say fuck and you take away the right to say fuck the government' might feel that we sometimes use such words unnecessarily. "

The editor's guidelines are as follows:

"First, remember the reader, and respect demands that we should not casually use words that are likely to offend.

"Second, use such words only when absolutely necessary to the facts of a piece, or to portray a character in an article; there is almost never a case in which we need to use a swearword outside direct quotes.

"Third, the stronger the swearword, the harder we ought to think about using it.

"Finally, never use asterisks, which are just a cop-out."


One suspects why the "story", if we must call it that, has been in the top ten stories of the day on the BBC's news site is that there's still a certain thrill in hearing certain people swear, especially those who we only usually see and hear under such formal constraints. It's a bit like a teacher swearing when you're a kid; likely you and your friends could have embarrassed sailors, such was your command of explicit language, yet there was still something forbidden and startling about an adult in such a position of power and who was meant to be whiter than white turning the air blue. Paxman though you expect isn't someone to whom swearing is foreign, while you get the feeling that some would pay to hear say, Fiona Bruce, swear. Not me though. Not at all.

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