Philip Hensher: Censoring TV isn’t a minority interest

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The question of taboo language on television is a constantly shifting one, and it’s right that it be re-examined from time to time.

Expressions that would once have been taboo on the grounds of blasphemy trouble almost nobody these days, unless an inventive comedian starts coming up with novel combinations and uses for God and Christ. “Swear words” in the old-fashioned sense – oaths and expletives – are not acceptable to everyone, even now, and the rain of kitchen language on some cooking shows on television seems to discourage a lot of viewers.

What no one, I think, predicted at a time of greater strictness was that a new and constantly enlarging area of taboo language would emerge in the future. This largely relates to the description of minorities. Comedy on television 30 or 40 years ago had no qualms about using words for minorities which now strike us as totally unacceptable, though it is worth noting that there were taboo words in this area long ago. When Jack de Manio mispronounced the phrase “the Land of the Niger” in 1956 on the BBC, it led to his immediate suspension and many public complaints.

Ofcom has just carried out an extensive survey of words which cause, or are thought to cause, offence. After asking a large number of focus groups, some interesting conclusions were drawn. “Bitch” and “wanker” are all right after the watershed, it appears, and some viewers thought that “shit” would be all right before then – I rather agree with that, long having thought that “piss” and “shit” were really the best and most direct words for their purpose. Stronger words – the f- and the c-words – still divided viewers.

Controversy is likely to be heard, however, over Ofcom’s conclusions over some words in the area of minority-description. After asking their focus groups, they say that “loony”, “nutter”, “poof” and “queer” are acceptable at any time of day. This, however, is at odds with the BBC’s current guidelines, which state that “faggot”, “poof” or “queer” may be deemed offensive when used by a heterosexual, particularly if the terminology is used aggressively or in a clearly pejorative manner.

I don’t want to start placing additional restrictions on the freedom of speech available to broadcasters, but Ofcom’s conclusions seem to me wrong-headed, and its methods questionable. You don’t ask randomly selected focus groups whether they find descriptions of a minority offensive: you ask that minority. If the N-word is offensive to black people, as it always has been, then I can’t see why the offence caused to gay people by the words “poof” is any less significant. Of course, we use it in banter, to each other, from time to time, just as some black people use the N-word. But we use it because of its offensiveness, pour épater le bourgeois. It doesn’t give broadcasters licence to start bandying the words around at any time of the day.

And the concentration on vocabulary is actively misleading. The c-word is expressive and lyrical in DH Lawrence, and a violent expression of hatred when heard on the football terraces. The word “gay” is an effective neutral description on paper, and a statement of loathing in the mouth of a Chris Moyles. I can call my best friend a “poof” if I choose to: I don’t want to hear it on Deal or No Deal.

Authors need the royal warrant more than ever

The other day, Prince William was spearheading a campaign to preserve the nation’s playing fields. They’ve been sold off for car parks and branches of Tesco all over the country, apparently, and a movement which was started by Prince Philip decades ago needs his grandson to keep them going. But a couple of days later, another side of royal patronage was shown when the Duchess of Cornwall presented the Orange Prize for fiction to a grateful Barbara Kingsolver.

Some people I know expressed scepticism as to whether the Duchess was much of a reader at all; unfairly, I believe, since friends who know her tell me that she loves a good novel. And how nice to see a member of the royal family publicly supporting that neglected cause, literature. The Prince of Wales has long been a great proponent of literary education. I hope he can be persuaded to make the same kind of defence of public libraries, say, as his son has of playing fields. In the meantime, his wife’s unexpected appearance at the Orange Prize is hugely welcome. Could we soon see a return of that charming custom whereby a selection of this season’s books is sent up to Balmoral for the summer, and their titles released to satisfy the public curiosity?

A Viennese schmaltz

My heart went out when I heard about the Romanian man who secreted himself in the undercarriage of a private jet and just survived the journey from Vienna to London, at temperatures of -41C. He doesn’t seem to have realised where the plane was heading to: he just wanted to get out of Vienna.

Is Vienna really as bad as all that? It always seems perfectly charming to me, and indeed was voted one of the three best cities in the world to live in quite recently. Perhaps he had had enough of the sachertorte, fake Wiener Werkstatte and that impenetrable Viennese accent. Still, it seems to take a dislike for Viennese schmaltz to an extreme to subject yourself to an air journey of such discomfort, with no idea whether you were going to end up in London or in the jet owner’s home country of Dubai.

Not even Michael O’Leary of Ryanair has yet considered allowing his impoverished passengers to ride on the undercarriages of his planes, as far as I know. In any case, you can’t help feeling that the Romanian gentleman would have been far better off if he had stayed in the place where he was born; his hideous adventure demonstrates the truth of Pascal’s remark that all the mischief in the world is caused by man’s inability to sit quietly in his own room.

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