“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.
The night Mr Terry was cleared, I happened to be presenting Newsnight, on account of the under-reported but serious national presenter shortage. We spent much of the day wrestling with how to convey the legal judgement. We were on well after the watershed and on BBC2 – but there was no certainty about what to do. There was a flurry of emails between executives, including the one I quoted at the top of this column. It was all the more stark in its unasterisked form. It still makes me laugh to read it, but behind it lies the deadly serious desire to inform properly without gratuitously offending.
We decided to do a slightly provocative opening to Newsnight with me, on screen, using the infamous phrase. We would not only bleep the strong language, but also blur my lips to bamboozle even the most gifted lip reader. This was how the football footage of John Terry had been treated all week and we thought it appropriate.
When we came to record the opening to be “bleeped and blobbed”, we were so sensitive about using the original phrase in front of a mic that the words I actually uttered were “flipping black cult”. And even after the bleeping, we had a discussion about whether it was appropriate to hear the final “t”. I think we probably got the balance right, to use that overused phrase. If we hadn’t, we’d have been deep in the shot.