DO NOT READ IF OFFENDED BY STRONG WORDS
Ofcom has published research exploring the latest attitudes to offensive language on TV and radio. The report looks at words and gestures, exploring what people were likely to find unacceptable, and the reasons why they were judged to be offensive.
Live TV continues to have the greatest reach of all UK media formats, with 92% of people watching each week in 2016. Furthermore, nine in ten adults tuned into the radio, listening for an average of three hours daily.
The groups of potentially offensive language and gestures fell into two broad categories: general swear words – those with clear links to body parts, sexual references, and offensive gestures; and specifically discriminatory language, whether directed at older people, people of particular religions, people with mental health or disability issues, LGBT people, or racist language.
General and other non-discriminatory language
• For general swear words, the emotional impact associated with particular words was important. In particular, certain words like ‘fuck’ or ‘motherfucker’ were regarded as among the strongest offensive language and not acceptable before the watershed, with some respondents having concerns about their frequent use after the watershed.
• Words with clear links to body parts like ‘cunt’, ‘gash’ or ‘beef curtains’ were in general viewed in a way analogous to the more, or most, offensive general swear words. However, many respondents thought the less crass or vulgar words (such as ‘balls’ or ‘tits’) were the more acceptable before the watershed.
• Sexual references like ‘cocksucker’ or ‘prick teaser’ were typically evaluated in a similar way to the more, or most, offensive general swear words. They were seen as distasteful and often unnecessary, but acceptable if used in line with audience expectations after the watershed.
• Offensive gestures were viewed as broadly unacceptable before the watershed, but mostly acceptable after it. The ‘blow job’ gesture was the least acceptable because it was perceived as the most vulgar.
• Unlike other forms of discriminatory language, respondents had few concerns about the terms assessed in this report that were potentially insulting to older people. These were mildly distasteful to some of the older participants, but many (of a range of ages) found them inoffensive or even, to some extent, humorous.
• Many of the words that were discriminatory on religious grounds were unfamiliar to some of the participants. However, those who were familiar with words such as ‘Taig’ and ‘Fenian’ viewed them as generally offensive and potentially unacceptable.
• Views on words relating to mental health and disability differed greatly. Words such as ‘spastic’, ‘mong’ or ‘retard’ were seen as insulting and derogatory, and therefore viewed as being as unacceptable as the strongestracist insults, with their use requiring significant contextual justification. On the other hand, words such as ‘nutter’, ‘loony’ or ‘mental’ were seen as more commonly – used mild insults, and were therefore much more acceptable, both before and after the watershed.
• Stronger homophobic and transphobic terms such as ‘faggot’, ‘homo’, and ‘chick with a dick’ were seen as very problematic by participants. This was, again, because of the insulting and derogatory nature of the language. These words were considered much less acceptable than general swear words.
• Racist language such as ‘coon’, ‘nigger’ and ‘wog’ were among the most unacceptable words overall; they were seen as derogatory, discriminatory and insulting. Many participants were concerned about these words being used at any time, with their use requiring significant contextual justification.
The 9pm watershed was considered crucial
The watershed on TV (or considering when children were particularly likely to be listening, in the case of radio) was seen as a good way of striking a balance between protecting children and respecting adult freedoms to watch TV or listen to radio when they wished. It was highly valued by almost all participants.
Not all words were familiar to participants, and this limited the detailed feedback that could be collected on little-known terms. The least familiar words (those that were recognised by less than 40% of participants) were on the whole slang terms relating to body parts or sex, as well as some ethnic or religious slurs. These words are indicated in this and following chapters with an asterisk (*). Older participants recognised fewer words overall, tending not to recognise more recent slang terms.
‘Medium words’ were those more often employed as stronger insults, as well as some words considered more distasteful depending on how they were used. They were regarded to be potentially unacceptable before the watershed, although there was some debate among participants.
Words such as ‘cock’, ‘pussy’ and ‘minge’ were seen as significantly stronger; a number of participants described them as more graphic, vulgar, or rude. Overall, this group of words were deemed generally unacceptable before the watershed.
A participant in the survey said “Pussycat is fine but “Stop being such a pussy” puts the word in a different and more offensive context”.
Participants agreed, however, that the word ‘pussy’ was potentially much more offensive when used as a slang term for vagina. The words ‘beef curtains’ and ‘bloodclaat’ were recognised by less than half of those who completed the online survey.
However, among those familiar with these words, both were considered generally unacceptable for broadcast before the watershed. Participants classed a small number of terms such as ‘fuck’, ‘motherfucker’ and ‘cunt’ as the strongest and most offensive
terms in this category of non-discriminatory language. They were seen to express very strong emotions, or to be rude and aggressive insults. The cultural norms around these words meant they were less acceptable to use in front of children.
They were considered unacceptable before the watershed by the vast majority of participants. Responses to the word ‘cunt’ were particularly strong. A significant number of participants were uncomfortable with its use even after the watershed. Women were more likely to say it was completely unacceptable, based on its strong vulgar cultural associations. Some women and a few men said they were personally offended and would prefer ‘cunt’ not to be used on TV or radio at all.
Sexual slurs, and more graphic sexual references like ‘cocksucker’, ‘whore’, ‘rapey’, and ‘jizz’, provoked stronger responses from participants. They were considered less acceptable because of their vulgarity, and because they were more likely to be used as insults directed at individuals. Similarly, words such as ‘slut’, ‘skank’ and ‘slag’ were seen as derogatory and vulgar, while words like ‘wanker’ and ‘dildo’ were seen as rude.
Participants’ in the survey suggested that their views on the acceptability of this type of offensive language on TV and radio differed from their response to the non-discriminatory offensive language and gestures discussed above. In general, discriminatory language was seen as potentially more problematic than more general offensive language.
The majority of the words in this category were unfamiliar to a considerable number of the participants who took part in this survey. However, these words were generally problematic for those participants who recognised them. Views on acceptability also depended on perceived religious sensitivity. Many participants, even if they did not know the full meaning of the words, were wary of religious terminology because they were worried that people of faith might be offended.
These words were considered generally unacceptable before the watershed but broadly acceptable after it, based on the desire to protect religious
Sexual orientation and gender identity
Most of these derogatory terms, relating to either sexual or gender identity, were seen as very problematic by all participants who recognised them. As a category, they were viewed as insulting, derogatory and discriminatory. As with some racist terms, many participants could not envisage how the stronger words could be used in a non-discriminatory
The word ‘gay’ was debated because it has multiple meanings and is used in multiple ways. Participants considered that it was acceptable when used as a simple identifier for homosexual people. Participants also discussed the use of ‘gay’ to mean ‘not cool’ or ‘not very good’. This caused some concern as it was considered potentially derogatory. While LGBT participants found this use of ‘gay’ less acceptable than participants generally, they did not consider it strongly offensive.
Words like ‘bummer’, ‘fairy’ and ‘pansy’ were medium in terms of acceptability. Participants thought of these words as rather dated and not often used now in a derogatory sense. However, they were still seen as potentially problematic when
intended to insult gay people. Many pointed out that some of these words are now used in the gay community in a humorous way. This meant that they were not always used as insults, thereby complicating decisions about acceptability and making context particularly important.
Words such as ‘dyke’, ‘poof’ and ‘rugmuncher’ were seen as strong and problematic. Participants objected to these types of words on the basis of being intentionally hurtful towards LGBT people. The terms were seen as generally unacceptable except in specific circumstances. For instance, as mentioned in the debated words section, some of these sexual orientation words like (such as ‘poof’, ‘queer’, and ‘dyke’) were seen as having been ‘reclaimed’ by the people they were originally intended to insult as expressions of their identity. In these circumstances the words were not considered
Terms such as ‘batty boy’, ‘chick with a dick’, and ‘faggot’ were seen as among the strongest language, and much more likely to be used as insults. Many participants argued these were mostly unacceptable in society in general as they are particularly discriminatory and derogatory. As a result, they were seen as potentially problematic when broadcast on TV and radio, with their acceptability highly dependent on the context. In part, participants wanted to avoid children coming across these words, but there were also powerful concerns about protecting gay and transgender people from being offended or insulted.
Mental health and physical disability
For participants, the most offensive words were those such as ‘spastic’, ‘mong’ and ‘retard’. In their opinion, these were the most derogatory, and were often used in ways likely to be hurtful towards people with disabilities. As with other strong forms of discriminatory language, participants emphasised that broadcasters should be very careful when using them. They should ensure that there are good reasons for doing so, and that any potential harm and offence are appropriately mitigated.
Race and ethnicity
Participants in the Ofcom survey had strong views about these words. Racist terms were the most unacceptable category overall because participants considered these words were usually used in a way that was derogatory and discriminatory to others. Participants thought they should normally be broadcast only in limited circumstances and in context, for example in news, drama, or documentary programmes to explore or expose prejudice.
However, participants did make some significant distinctions regarding the acceptability of words within this category. Terms such as ‘Jock’ or ‘Nazi’ were felt to be historical insults whose meaning and use had changed and softened over the years. Indeed, some Scottish participants did not find ‘Jock’ offensive and others expected ‘Nazi’ to be used mainly in educational contexts.
Although there was limited concern about the use of ‘Hun’ as a derogatory reference to German people, the word was seen as less acceptable by those familiar with its use as a sectarian insult. In general, though, these words were of limited concern. Terms such as ‘pikey’ or ‘kraut’ were debated because some participants saw them as insulting and derogatory to specific groups – and therefore less acceptable – while others viewed them as having developed into more general insults.