Many people are offended by the use of strong language on television, particularly if its use appears gratuitous. Whether or not audiences consider such language to be justified again turns on a consideration of the context in which it appears, based on the usual factors. In addition, the Code contains some specific rules in relation to offensive language within programmes before the watershed. See also 'Scheduling and the Watershed - Programme Trailers and Promotions' and Channel 4's Areas of Potential Concern where Specific Procedures Apply.
Before the Watershed
- It is a well-established rule that "the most offensive language" must not be broadcast before the 9pm watershed. This means the words "cunt", "motherfucker" and "fuck" and derivatives of these words, for example "fucking". They must therefore be edited out, bleeped, or the sound dipped so that the word is completely obscured. Exceptionally, it may also be necessary to obscure the speaker's mouth where the word is very clearly mouthed straight to camera.
- Other less offensive language for example "shit", "bugger" etc. must not be used before the watershed unless it is justified by the context and would not exceed viewers' expectations but, in any event, "...the frequent use of such language before the watershed should be avoided".
- In programmes aimed specifically at younger children, offensive language should only be included in the most "exceptional circumstances".
- There exists an unofficial but well-known classification of words which have been ranked according to their potential to cause offence. This was based on research carried out by previous television industry regulators. For example, research showed that the word "bastard" is generally deemed to be offensive and thus, if it is to be included in programmes before 9pm, which it occasionally may be, there must be clear editorial justification.
- A word like "bloody", on the other hand, is generally deemed to be relatively inoffensive and its inclusion, even in a programme watched by large numbers of children, would be unlikely to offend most viewers. However, broadcasters must have regard to the 'cumulative effect' of casual swearing.
After the Watershed
- After 9pm, whether or not offensive language is justified will depend largely on the audience's expectations and the context - for example the particular word in question and how offensive it is, how it is being used (descriptively, as an insult, aggressively, as vernacular), the nature of the programme, time of broadcast, whether a warning has been given.
- Generally, frequent use of very strong language, for example "cunt" or "motherfucker", should be reserved for later in the schedule. However, use of the word "fuck", including its liberal use, is less likely to cause widespread offence even in programmes starting right on the watershed, as long as there is strong editorial justification and viewers are properly forewarned. For programmes that are scheduled to start actually at 9pm, it is likely to be preferable that the use of strong language is avoided in the opening minutes of the programme and especially pre-titles. See 'Scheduling and the Watershed'.
- Because of its potential to cause widespread offence, use of the word "cunt" requires exceptional justification at any time. In practice, its inclusion is rarely justifiable before 10pm.
- Profanities, for example "Jesus", "Christ Almighty," cause offence to many at whatever time of day they are broadcast and, if included, should be editorially justified as well as by the context.
- Profanities coupled with other highly offensive language for example "Jesus fucking Christ" can cause serious offence. In most cases, such expressions will be unacceptable at any time and will need to be removed either by 'dipping', 'bleeping', or editing out the sequence altogether.
- When 'bleeping' or 'dipping' the sound to disguise an offensive word, generally the entire word should be obscured, not just part of it. If the programme in question is transmitting before the watershed and, even after 'bleeping' or 'dipping', it is still clear what the person is saying, it might in exceptional circumstances be appropriate to cover the mouth of the person with some sort of visual device. However, this will rarely be necessary and should only be considered where the word is clearly mouthed straight to camera.
The most recent research of Ofcom into current attitudes to potentially offensive language and gestures on TV can be found here.