“I’m happy to approve the f***, but it requires your approval for the ****.”
The trial of John Terry for a racially aggravated public order offence was a tricky one for the news media. Awareness of the strong language used on the football field that day, and then in a public courtroom for a week, was critical to understanding the legal arguments. But how the heck do you properly convey those flipping words without causing offence?
I was bamboozled by some of the press coverage. One paper’s copy looked like an explosion in an asterisk factory. Working out some of the sweary bits was worse than Sudoku. Another paper just went for it and printed every doggone word. I know it was a desperately serious case, but there was something vaguely thrilling about seeing Roger Mellie from Viz doing court reporting, and it was only through the unasterisked version that I really got a grasp of the details.
It’s not possible to eff and blind your way through a radio news programme – think what the Secretary of State for Media would have to say about it. I know that at the BBC there was a lot of discussion about how to proceed. An early attempt had us broadcasting a warning about strong language, only to follow it with the words: “effing black c-word”. Sometimes the words weren’t indicated at all. It was especially tricky on radio where there is no defined watershed.
My experience of Radio 4 listeners is that they like to be treated like grown-ups. We once got complaints about a piece of audio that was judged to have been bleeped so excessively, all meaning was lost. Let us hear the swearing, we were told. And generally, if a clear warning is given, and the use of the strong language is deemed necessary, people are happy to hear it.