The Only Way is Ethics: A grown-up newspaper should have no truck with bashfulness when life is obscene

The Independent’s readership is adult, serious-minded and highly literate

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The eagle-eyed among you might have spotted an offensive little thing in last Monday’s paper – an asterisk. Not any old asterisk, mind, but one that found itself sandwiched between a “c” on one side and an “nt” on the other.

This is not The Independent’s usual policy. If the use of an obscenity is editorially justified, then it should be written in full, however profane the term in question may be. If there is no good reason to use the word, we leave it out.

Our approach is based on the fundamental belief that The Independent’s readership – adult, serious-minded and highly literate – does not need the realities of worldly language hidden from them by metaphorical net curtains. We recognise there may be rare occasions when this can lead to an awkward conversation if a young child happens to see a word they do not know. However, if that were the only criterion on which decisions about publication were made, all sorts of material would be kept off the page. The Independent’s target audience is not pre-teen.

Fundamentally, the equation is this: are readers more likely to feel patronised by unnecessary coyness or to be offended by the spelling out of a profanity that they are likely to hear – and, whisper it, maybe even use – in their day-to-day lives? On balance, for our print audience, we are confident that full disclosure is the best strategy.

As it happens, the approach we take online is different. The audience for our web content is significantly broader and there are many more casual visitors; there is also a greater chance of children coming across the site on their own than there is of them walking into a shop and buying the newspaper. In that context, the potential for offence to be taken is magnified.

Context should, in the end, be everything. If an important quote contains a swear word – as it did on this occasion – then it clearly should not be excised. If the impact of a comment piece is genuinely heightened by the judicious deployment of an obscenity, then its use is legitimate. And to a grown-up audience, to whom The Independent’s policy has explicitly been made clear, there is no good reason to hide behind the cover (such as it provides) of an asterisk.

Last week’s bashfulness was an aberration. In the future, we will endeavour to put the “u” in even the most distinctly “non-U” term; and we will never call a spade a sp*de.

Discomforted by Buttygate

Poor Ed Miliband is evidently not the most elegant consumer of bacon sandwiches the world has ever seen. But is the fact newsworthy? Well, in that presentation is now a key element of political electability, perhaps it is.

Images of Buttygate did not make their way into The Independent, partly because one day’s breakfast debacle is the next day’s stale buns. We did run an item online, however, which elicited criticism from a reader who felt it amounted to “gutter journalism”.

That seems a harsh judgement. Politicians making public appearances must expect scrutiny – of what they say, how they behave, how they dress. But there is an uncomfortable truth in here somewhere about the way in which individuals are held up to ridicule too easily.

We live in a world where there is increasing awareness of the damage that can be done, especially to young people, by over-hyped and glibly marketed visions of perfection. Yet alongside moves towards greater celebration of individuality and “real” body image, the media still acquiesce to the notion that it is all right to pillory a politician for looking weird.

Will Gore is Deputy Managing Editor of The Independent, i, Independent on Sunday and the Evening Standard

Twitter: @willjgore

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