BROADCASTING blasphemous exclamations such as “Jesus Christ” and “goddam” is acceptable before the watershed, according to a survey conducted by the regulator, Ofcom.
It found that attitudes have softened towards bad language on TV and radio, to the extent that such expletives are regarded today as only mildly offensive, and their use in everyday speech has been superseded by stronger terms.
Words that are clearly religiously discriminatory, however, such as “Taig” (a derogatory term for a Roman Catholic or Irish nationalist, used mainly in Northern Ireland), are still regarded as unacceptable, as are various ethnic slurs.
“Many participants said there is a clear divide between the emotional impact of discriminatory and racist words compared to ‘general’ swear words,” the director of content standards, licensing, and enforcement at Ofcom, Tony Close, said. “People draw the line at racist and discriminatory language: participants felt this was the most unacceptable of all.
“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.”
The broadcasting regulator’s Communications Market Report 2016 found that the 9 p.m. television watershed, which protects children from unsuitable material, was still felt to be important by the public. They were more tolerant of foul language after it, especially if it reflected “real-world” situations, and was set in the right context.
The research project, which is carried out every five to six years, helps to inform Ofcom's response to complaints from viewers about bad language on TV and radio. It used a mixture of focus groups, in-depth interviews, online surveys, and discussions involving people from around the UK to examine 144 potentially offensive words, and six gestures.
It found that sexual terms were seen in a similar way to stronger general swear-words, and were viewed as distasteful and often unnecessary, but were more acceptable after the watershed. There were few worries about insults towards the elderly, such as “coffin dodger”, or “old bag”, which even older people found amusing. It also showed that repeated bleeping out of swearing failed, as viewers could work out what had been obscured.
The survey also showed that audiences were more worried about swearing on the radio than on television. They “regarded radio as a more intimate medium, often on in the background at home, or where children could be listening without parental control”.
Mr Close said: “Ofcom has a duty to apply standards which provide adequate protection to audiences from offensive and harmful content. 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.”
An Ofcom spokesman said this week: “The findings are from new research into people's attitudes towards potentially offensive language and gestures in broadcasting, the biggest study of its kind carried out by Ofcom.
"The results are vital in supporting our broadcasting standards work to protect viewers and listeners, especially children."