Until very recently, it seemed that television in the UK was on the verge of achieving a world first. True, making the F word commonplace on mainstream TV was never going to be considered one of the medium's great moments, to rank alongside Baftas, Emmys or heroic journalism, but it did appear to represent a small victory for free speech against the forces of darkness and repression.
Television, at least post-watershed, could be said to have caught up with the 21st century, particularly the world inhabited by a younger generation, for whom the four-letter word was, like it or not, a natural part of everyday speech. On closer examination, the fate of the F word in what has suddenly become a much less permissive environment tells a very different, but much more interesting story.
Steven Pinker's 70-page book The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television is unlikely to have been on the Christmas list of many TV executives, regulators or politicians. That's a shame, because in it he offers an indispensable account of how individual words move from profanity to acceptability, the science of how the brain responds to swear words, as well as some suggested policies to manage bad language in a medium such TV. Although the Olympian perspective of history and science offered by a Harvard professor of psychology makes Pinker sound like an ultra-liberal, he buys the idea that broadcast networks – not least, for reasons of economic self-interest – have every right to guard against intrusive and profane language calculated to upset large numbers of viewers.
Published in 2007, the book appeared in the middle of what can only now be described as a golden age for the four- letter word on television. Since it first spilled out of the mouth of the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan in a live show in 1965, through to its use by the Sex Pistols on a teatime programme in 1976, the F word's power to shock has been in marked decline as it has become ubiquitous. John Lydon notoriously topped his 1976 achievement with the double nasty "fucking cunt" in an edition of I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! in 2004, and after that came the deluge of expletives unleashed, as almost a stock in trade, by the TV chefs Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver.
Also worth a mention were the many editions of The Apprentice where the threat of being eviscerated by Sir Alan Sugar triggered widespread use of the four-letter word. BBC1 viewers appeared not to mind, with very few complaints recorded. As Pinker describes it, this has all the classic hallmarks of "desensitisation", where a kind of aerial bombardment of a taboo word ends up removing its power to shock, as well as any sense of its precise meaning. At the same time, the use of profanities even in programme titles – The F***ing Fulfords, BBC3's Fuck Off I'm Fat, Ramsay's The F Word or even the feature film Meet the Fockers – is a further attempt to normalise it.
So, let's fast forward to the moment in this month's broadcast of the Baftas, when Mick Jagger remarked on Mickey Rourke's four-letter acceptance speech: "You see, you thought Jonathan [Ross] was going to do all the fucking and Mickey [Rourke] did it." This was the same Mick Jagger who in the Sixties stood for youthful rebellion, but who could not be permitted to say a word uttered by a TV chef 232 times in one two-hour programme, broadcast by Channel 4 in the last month.
Unlike Tynan's notorious breaking of a TV taboo years earlier, there was an opportunity to bleep the offensive word on the Baftas coverage, which is what the BBC did. The joke Jagger made worked either way, and nobody was in any doubt about what he had said. Would the audience at home have been offended? Would children watching have been corrupted? Would people have turned off? The answer to all three questions is probably not. It was a good joke, at Jonathan Ross's expense, delivered by a man who has spent half a century epitomising the world of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll.
And this is the sting in the tail. The new clampdown on the F word should preserve it for posterity. Of the 800 or so words we have in the English language for copulation, there are apparently 1,000 synonyms for the penis. The F word, used carefully, has a set of very specific meanings, which can range from the hilarious to the poignant and to what Pinker describes as the "uncannily descriptive". From Larkin's celebrated line "They fuck you up, your mum and dad" to great TV drama, comedy and documentary, it is a powerful weapon in the armoury of television. So in clamping down on its overuse, which was in danger of turning the word into a meaningless expletive, nothing more than a verbal tic, the recent wave of moral indignation may unwittingly have helped us preserve its unique flavour and power, not least its power to shock. Using it more sparingly should give it a new lease of life.
As the BBC awaits a report by two senior executives, Alan Yentob and Roly Keating, on "the appropriate boundaries of taste", we can be hopeful that they will be sensitive to the inestimable value of the F word, properly deployed. But all words are not created equal. A very different argument applies to the use of another contentious word. There is no possible defence of the use of "golliwog", unless it is to send up the person who uses it as small-minded and profoundly out of touch.
Simon Shaps is the former director of television at ITVReuse content