Shouldn’t we be able to take a Stephen Fry swear word in our stride?

A bit of Bafta naughtiness, and suddenly everyone’s taking offence

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I know we live in an age when people are very quick to take offence, but this is ridiculous. A total of 293 people took the trouble to complain to the BBC about Stephen Fry's language at the Bafta ceremony on Sunday night. That's right. Almost 300 of your fellow citizens were so shocked by the use of a four-letter word way after the 9pm watershed that they felt moved to register their disapproval.

I think it is credible to criticise Fry for being unfunny, or self-indulgent, or for his tasteless impression of Stephen Hawking, but for using a couple of swear words? They may have been gratuitous and self-consciously out of character, but I simply refuse to believe that anyone in this day and age could find this a cause for outrage.

But then again... I served my time on the frontline of taste and decency as editor of The Independent, and I know how the use of bad language in a public forum arouses strong feelings. Even at a paper with liberal credentials and a highly sophisticated readership, we would think very hard about whether it was strictly necessary to use a swear word, knowing a vocal minority of our patrons didn't like it.

This discussion generally ended up in a quite straightforward choice: to asterisk or not to asterisk? This newspaper's policy is to asterisk the highest tariff swear words, and that is a credible and consistent position for a title with such a broad readership. In fact, the editor of this column, when he found out my subject today, asked me: “Can you be sparing in your quoting of any offending words?” I have taken his imprecation? IS THIS THE RIGHT WORD HERE? to heart: you won't find any expletives here.

But I think there may be a problem with the asterisk. The brilliant American comedian Louis CK has a sketch in which he talks about the use of the N-Word. Not the actual word, but the phrase ”the N-word“. This, he says, puts the actual word in the listener's head, while the person saying ”the N-word“ gets away with it. ”Why are you making me say it?“ he asks rhetorically.

The same could be said to be true with the asterisking of swear words. First the reader has to work out exactly what the word is, and then has to say it silently, and then has to decide whether to be offended or not. If anything, it draws attention to the words of someone who may indeed be an attention-seeker.

Which brings us back to Stephen Fry. His expletive-punctuated introduction of Tom Cruise was, in my view, neither funny Nor clever, and smacked of trying too hard. I have spent time with Mr Fry in a social context, and have found him to be exactly as you might imagine: charming, articulate and hugely interesting. I don't think I've ever heard him use coarse or bad language, so I found his outburst on Sunday rather jarring. But surely we are sufficiently evolved not to take offence at a little bit of cursing long after nightfall. To those who complained, I can only say: Get a ****!