Donald Trelford On The Press

You have to read a posh paper to get the authentic effing facts
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WARNING: this article contains bad language. This is unavoidable in describing the way national newspapers print, delete or use asterisks to disguise expletives, according to their perception of what offends their readers. Independent readers are thought to be more tolerant about swearing than others, notably those highly sensitive flowers, the readers of the red-top press, which, in this area at least, prides itself on higher standards.

There are some ironies here, and maybe a touch of hypocrisy, too. In my experience, journalists on what used to be called tabloids have more of a culture of swearing in the office than those on what used to be called broadsheets. In fact, one of our most distinguished editors uses the c-word so regularly that his editorial conferences are known to his staff as the Vagina Monologues. Yet his paper has a policy of zero tolerance on expletives.

Yet again, it seems safe to assume that the readers of the more popular papers are themselves more inclined to pepper their daily discourse with exactly the kind of swear words that are deemed likely to offend them in print. Even though it may seem paradoxical, however, I'm sure that the papers exercising most restraint – the Sun, News of the World, Daily Mirror and the Associated Newspapers group – are right about their own readers' reactions. As Ken Obank, the wise old managing editor of The Observer, once said to me: "Readers expect their newspapers to behave better than they do themselves."

The result is that the papers that parade the most nudity and carry the most lubricious stories are the most squeamish when it comes to printing bad language.

The Sun, for example, favours circumlocutions like "unusual sex act". I was a bit prissy as an editor myself and once banned an anti-American poem by Harold Pinter because the word "fuck" appeared in every other line. On another occasion, however, I relented. It was when our football writer, Patrick Barclay, now with The Sunday Telegraph, wrote an article about the swear words that referees would tolerate from players on the field and those that brought a yellow card.

The word that most offended the men with the whistle, "cunt," is the one that causes most offence to the public at large. A survey commissioned by the Advertising Standards Authority and the BBC lists " cunt", "motherfucker", "fuck" and "wanker" as the four most offensive words. As many as 83 per cent of people thought "cunt" should never be used on television or, presumably, in print.

One can only assume the sample included few Guardian readers, since that word has appeared 383 times in the paper, according to a Google search, and the word "fuck" no fewer than 3,027 times since 1998. The paper's style book urges caution in the use of such language, however, and bans the use of asterisks, regarding them as "a cop-out" and quoting Charlotte Brontë in opposition to their use in censoring books in her time. In contrast, the word "cunt" has never appeared in The Mail on Sunday and "fuck" only once, in 1993, and that went in by accident in the magazine.

Some newspapers take the view that swear words are permissible where the context requires it. Many then use asterisks. Like The Guardian, this newspaper disdains asterisks, thinking its readers should be treated as grown-ups. My own, perhaps namby-pamby belief is that asterisks send an apologetic message to readers that the paper is publishing the rude words reluctantly. I shall be interested to see if any readers complain about the rude words used here. Come to think of it, this is one of the very few newspapers where an article such as this could appear.

Many people, even on newspapers, are surprised that the D-notice system still exists, having assumed that it died with the collapse of Communism. Yet the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee, consisting of editors and civil servants, functions much as it ever did. Now a history of the D-notice system, right back to its origins in 1912, is being written by its former Secretary, Admiral Nick Wilkinson.

A prevalent myth about the system is that governments can "slap a D-notice" (now called a or D-A Notice) on a story and thereby censor it. The phrase comes up in television dramas and is widely believed by the public. In reality it's an advisory system, which editors can choose to ignore. I had to put some Americans straight on that one recently, when they consulted me about a feature film they were planning called "D-Notice". They believed that the British government had slapped a D- notice on reports of a robbery because some embarrassing papers about Princess Margaret had been stolen. I doubt if my words of warning will stop them.

Journalists, spoiled by freebies, are notoriously slow to reach into their own pockets, even for those who fall by the wayside in their precarious profession. All the more credit, therefore, to the campaign by the Journalists' Charity to raise £1.1m for two new buildings for the use of retired newspaper people in Dorking. They were opened last week by the Countess of Wessex and named after the late Sir Edward Pickering and Lord Rothermere.

The next chance to contribute to the Journalists' Charity is at the Press Ball, hosted by Katie Derham, at the Natural History Museum on 18 October. Last year the organisers, London Press Club, raised £42,000. Tickets and tables can be bought from Entire Affair (020-8429 7520 or

In this column a fortnight ago Stephen Glover rightly drew attention to an appalling television ad for The Times, promoting its Monday football supplement, The Game, showing a man reading it on the lavatory. It insults both existing Times readers and the football supporters it is seeking to recruit.

I was reminded of some of the great newspaper slogans: "Every woman needs her Daily Mail", for example, or "The Sunday Times is the Sunday newspapers," "A Newspaper not a Snooze-paper" (for the launch of The Mail on Sunday), even "the Soaraway Sun". The best we had, at a time when our rivals were flooding the market with extra sections post-Wapping, was: "The Observer is not as thick as The Sunday Times." Then, of course, there was a famous one: "Top People Take The Times." This must now be updated to "Bottom People Take The Times."

Donald Trelford was Editor of 'The Observer', 1975-93, and is Emeritus Professor in Journalism Studies at Sheffield University