Saturday 4 June 2011

Mail on Sunday attacks BBC for word they didn't actually broadcast

Last month, an attempt by the Mail on Sunday to attack the BBC (over Tim Henman's Wimbledon fee) backfired when they were forced to withdraw the inaccurate story a week later.

But they're never going to give up attacking the BBC so they have dug up what journalists Chris Hastings and Steve Farrell call a 'decency row' involving a joke on a Radio 4 comedy show. The paper thinks this is such an important story, it's their front page lead:

The BBC was at the centre of a new decency row last night after ruling that the most offensive word in English is acceptable for broadcast.

The Corporation decided that the word – most abhorrent to women – has lost much of its 'shock value' and is tolerable for radio and television.

An executive who cleared it for daytime transmission on flagship Radio 4 even said it would 'delight' many of its audience, who would 'love it’.

Firstly, there was no decency row 'last night'. The twelfth paragraph of the article reveals that the joke in question was broadcast on an episode of The News Quiz in October last year. At the time, a retired newspaper executive complained to the BBC. After going through the complaints process, and various appeals, his complaint was rejected - and so he seems to have sent all the correspondence to the Mail on Sunday.

According to the article, the BBC has decided the c-word is 'tolerable for radio'. It was 'cleared for daytime transmission', the paper says.

They bolster their case with critical quotes from MP John Whittingdale:

'The vast majority of people still regard this an offensive term and it should not have been broadcast at this time.'

And, inevitably, from Mediawatch-UK:

'This is still an offensive term and is in fact one of the only truly offensive terms we have left. It should not have been broadcast at this time.'

All of which very strongly suggests the c-word was said on this show. Indeed, the paper explains:

The Mail on Sunday feels it is necessary to the reporting of the story to repeat the joke, and apologises in advance for any offence caused.

OK. Everyone sitting down, braced for the shock?

Miss [Sandi] Toksvig said: 'It's the Tories who have put the 'n' into cuts.'




So the word wasn't actually broadcast on The News Quiz, then? No.

But didn't the article say the the BBC had made a 'ruling [that] the word is acceptable for broadcast'?

It takes the Mail on Sunday eleven paragraphs to repeat the joke and up until that point it very clearly implies the c-word was actually uttered at 6.30pm. It wasn't.

So rude word not actually broadcast on radio. They decided to hold the front page for that.

Yet the final line of the article might just give away what the paper is up to:

Ofcom said its own research confirmed the word was still regarded as highly offensive, adding that it would investigate any complaint made to it.

So despite the Mail calling Ofcom 'toothless' and 'pathetic' on Saturday, the Mail on Sunday appears keen to get its readers to complain to the regulator - particularly because the BBC will be on the receiving end.

Elsewhere in the paper, Peter Hitchens also has his say about this (non) issue in his column. He writes:

Every few weeks a reader writes to me to tell me that the BBC has brushed aside a reasonable complaint. They send me the fat-bottomed, complacent responses, and they share with me their frustration that, in the end, the BBC is accountable to nobody.

He accuses the BBC of replying to complaints with:

smug, unhelpful responses


crass, unresponsive statements

Clearly, when it comes to dealing with complaints, the BBC needs to take lessons from the Mail, the Mail on Sunday, and their owners, Associated Newspapers.

For example, Michael Parkinson said:

'I believe that the persistent delaying tactics of the Daily Mail were both unattractive and unworthy of a national should not have taken nine months nor been so difficult for the editor to apologise promptly.'

Or how about the Mail's response when Richard Littlejohn claimed:

Most robberies in this country have been carried out by Eastern European gangs.

They didn't reply with crass or smug statements to a reader who complained - because for six weeks, they didn't reply at all. And when they did, they tried to every tactic they could think of to dilute the wording of the apology.

Then there was Richard Wilson's lengthy effort to get a clarification from the Mail over a column on asbestos. Wilson wrote:

After a delay of several weeks, the PCC forwarded me a dismissive response from the Daily Mail's executive managing editor, Robin Esser. While acknowledging some minor errors, Esser insisted that the disputed HSE study did indeed back up Booker's views on asbestos. The fact that the HSE had put out a statement explicitly rebutting this merely proved that "those responsible for HSE press releases are similarly unable to grasp the significance of findings published by their own statisticians". For good measure, Esser accused me (falsely, just in case you're wondering) of being "allied to a well-organised and well-funded commercial lobby", who "stand to benefit financially" from the "anti-asbestos campaign".

He adds:

More time-consuming exchanges followed, with long gaps in between, while we awaited a response from the Daily Mail. In the end we won, sort of...But to get even this far has taken seven months, and a substantial time investment, while the Daily Mail seems to have been able to drag the process out with impunity.

What about the experience of Juliet Shaw:

they stood by their article and told me that they would not enter into any further correspondence with me and considered the matter closed.

And Cherie Blair:

Associated Newspapers failed to provide a full and unequivocal apology, or even to give a substantive response to her complaint

And Sophie Dahl:

she is seeking aggravated damages, in part, as the paper failed to apologise to her or respond to a letter of complaint.

Dismissive, unhelpful and accountable to nobody, indeed...


  1. Paul Dacre, monologues, etc etc etc

  2. Its the same old nonsense, Max Miller used to have to put up with this. Yes they alluded to that word, but that's the point. The listener puts it together and laughs (or not as in the case of the complainant). If you don't have the experience to put it together, I.E. you're too young to get the joke, then nothing rude has actually been said.

    So what's being complained about is that a joke is being made in a way that adults will understand, but protects children from profanity.

    The BBC are such terrible people.

  3. I remember that joke on the News Quiz. "The Tories - the party who put the N into cuts" or something similar. I thought it was pretty funny. Never even occurred to me people might be offended. (Except Tories, but they should be used to it by now...) And they weren't, in general - one person complains, and the Mail are all over it!

  4. The bit about 'most offensive to women' is pretty patronising too, in a sort of 'would you allow your wife to read this' sort of way. Not to mention that the joke in question was made by a woman!

  5. That is quite funny - and chances are kids listening who happen to chance by The News Quiz will have no idea what Toksvig is referring to. If they did, they know the word already and it's not as if they won't learn a little bit of culture. I don't see what the problem is...

  6. Many years ago (1992), the BBC did a rather amusing joke about John Major. You may remember that where most of pronounce "want" as though it is spelled "w-a-n-t" he used to say it as though it was "w-u-n-t". And a cheeky BBC type, in a comedy sketch, said, "For you, Prime Minister, there is no such word as 'can't'". It was before the Mail had a website, so I expect there was no furious row erupting. Or something.

  7. The retired newspaper exec seems desperate to be in the limelight. Here's him appearing in other non-news news stories:

    I assume by the presence of his picture that he was the one spinning the story.

  8. What I can't understand is how people can build themselves up into a frenzy of outrage over even the inference of a word (and not even the word itself) and yet when it comes down to REAL issues like Westminster Council trying to make it a criminal offence to give homeless people food, that there's a quiet sitting on hands, and looking away. Which of the two situations is truly offensive in civilised society?

  9. @ejh - You beat me to it. I'm sure that the transcript of any conversations from Paul Dacre's office would be unsuitable for publication.
    @Tom (iow) - Since Sandy Toksvig is lesbian, I doubt the Daily Fail readership would consider her a "lady".

  10. So...this is the same Peter Hitchens, who crusades against censorship, who now wants the BBC to be censored? YOUCUDDENMAYKIDDUP!!!

  11. @snappy She's also from Denmark, one of those awful foreign European countries.

    She ticks all the boxes on the DM fury list. Immigrant, Lesbian (in a civil partnership and with children), BBC, Funny, luke-warm offensive, but in an intelligent way that the DM readership won't understand. I'm surprised Dacre doesn't have a price on her head.

  12. Minor point but the joke was:

    George Osbourne, now theres a man who puts the N in cuts.

    They can even quote right

  13. I don't know what everyone's getting so worked up about. Clearly Sandi was making a reference to her Danish heritage with a joke about King Cnut, who attempted to hold back the tides in the same way the Tories are trying to hold back the tides of recession. And their cuts are about as effective as Cnut commanding the tides to stop, hence they are a bunch of useless Cnuts. Nothing offensive about that.

  14. I see Private Eye has picked up on your piece - almost word for word in places.


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