Michael Williams: Readers' editor

The four-letter word we always allow is 'care'
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So shocking was it, I can recall the precise moment it happened. Midway between the 'Sunday Worship' and 'The 'Archers' omnibus – and just after the 'IoS' plopped through the letter box last Sunday – the voice on Radio 4 said it. "Fuck." Never mind that it had been uttered in a discussion with Irvine Welsh, the author of 'Trainspotting'; you could almost hear the crash of breaking taboos across the toast and marmalade from Croydon to Cheltenham, from Harrow to Harrogate.

Curious how so familiar a word, heard in thousands of conversations every day and scores of times on mainstream TV, still has such power. You might have thought Gordon Ramsay would have chargrilled the life out of it by now. Yet it's still as potent as ever. My colleague Janet Street-Porter, who's also made the word something of a trademark, tells me that her latest book, 'Life's Too F***ing Short', has been so successful that she's been asked to produce a sequel.

Despite the fact that the word has been in the 'Oxford English Dictionary' for more than 35 years, we journalists often don't know how to handle it, frequently holding ambivalent attitudes. As a young reporter, I was regularly bawled out by a news editor, who must have spent years perfecting the ability to cram the maximum number of four-letter words into a single sentence. Yet he was a church-going Calvinist who would not have dreamed of using them in his own home. The current editor of Britain's most successful mid-market paper regularly terrifies his staff with fusillades of four-letter words. Yet none has ever appeared in his newspaper.

At the 'Independent' titles, the rules are clear. Though it's no secret that there's sometimes strong language in the office, it is our policy never casually to use words in the newspaper that are likely to offend. It may seem cool to sprinkle a few four-letter words here and there. Certainly, more journalists than ever seem to think so, but there are many readers who believe otherwise. And adults who are happy to use such language in everyday conversation rarely wish their children to be exposed to it.

Our policy is that swear words should be used as sparingly as possible, and only when relevant to a story – and where context is required. Roger Alton, the editor of 'The Independent', puts it thus: "If Robert Mugabe tells David Miliband to 'fuck off', that is interesting and worth quoting. But if I use similar language, that is neither interesting nor worth quoting." We should never substitute asterisks, which is a cop-out. (Janet's book title, quoted above, is how it appears on the cover.)

There's a simple test – if in doubt, edit it out. In real life, many politicians, sports personalities and business people use expletives all the time. Does what they have to say when quoted in newspapers sound any worse for being toned down? Golly, gosh. I don't think so.

Message Board: What’s a library for in this age of information?

The Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, called last week for a rethink about the role of public libraries:

We need librarians who know something about books, rather than the untrained, unskilled Saturday-job know-nothings who are starting to take over. Granted, there are some great staff.


My library already does a lot of the things that Motion wants to see. I'd hardly call it groundbreaking, but it's a pleasant place to go. But there are now too many computer terminals, at the expense of books.


Libraries were conceived as a source of knowledge and information, to empower communities and improve their prospects. Books and computers can both do the job, although I'd rather settle for books.


Definitely books – too many computer terminals at my library, Blackpool. They need old-fashioned desks. They also sell too many books, to make way for more computers.


1. Reverse the decline in the quantity and range of books. 2. Bring buildings up to health and safety standards. 3. Stop closing rural libraries. 4. Increase opening hours. 5. A new library for London.

Martyn Everett

My library closed its sheet music library to make way for computers. These are largely used for email while I can no longer browse for pieces I might be able to play. But extending skills is a library's job.


There are many who are vaguely aware that libraries exist and that they are a good thing, but who would never cross the threshold. Libraries need great product, access and staff. Then let people know.

Paige Turner

As a sector, we need to be more self-critical. There's still a lot of mediocrity out there. UK public library provision really is under threat unless something changes soon – a heart-breaking prospect.


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