A rude awakening

Observations bad language

On Christmas Eve the BBC announced that the comedian Frank Skinner would shortly present an edition of Panorama examining taste and decency in broadcasting in the wake of Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross and "Sachsgate". "Foul-mouthed" Skinner, as the Daily Mail describes him, will need to be at his most persuasive, however, because the swearing backlash has already begun. In the run-up to Christmas, Preston Council launched a zero-tolerance campaign towards swearing in the city centre, with police given the power to issue on-the-spot fines.

For once, the Mail seems to have tapped in to a genuine sense of outrage. At an elementary level, there is a revulsion towards the coarsening of public discourse. But this also seems to be linked to the financial climate. Look through all those newspaper features on what good might come out of an economic downturn and you will invariably find a mention of the hope that we might become more civil towards one another. The adrenalin-fuelled world of the City has been discredited, and so has the City Boy notion that those with the cojones to make it had to have the ability to swear fluently. In the light of the collapse of the banking sector, it now seems neither clever nor funny.

The English have never been granted the same indulgence in their use of profanities as the Celts, particularly the Irish, who have virtually been given a free pass for their own variant, "feck". Last month, I happened to watch the start of Four Weddings and a Funeral, where, in something like the opening 30 seconds, Hugh Grant and Charlotte Coleman utter nine fucks, a "fuckety fuck" and a bugger. How contrived it sounded. Grant, playing Charles, the quintessential English good egg, just can't pull it off and sound natural. A few days later, I saw a clip of an old Billy Connolly stand-up routine. The Scot throws in the expletives not as the central part of a joke but to nudge the riff along.

There are two areas that we can confidently predict will carry on as normal. The first is sport. In Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby recalls that one of the thrills of attending football matches as a young boy was hearing grown men, either on the pitch or on the terraces, swear with happy abandon. To see a sportsman mouth an obscenity at his opponent is to appreciate that the tension and animosity have just been cranked up a gear. This is what fans want. True, there was some outrage in November when the Newcastle manager Joe Kinnear launched into a tirade against the media in which he swore 52 times in five minutes. But such outbursts have always gone on in the dressing and press rooms.

Then there is journalism itself, a sector where swearing is directly proportional to the imminence of deadlines. Perhaps the worst offender is one editor, whose instructions to staff have come to be known as "the Vagina Monologues", such is the regularity with which the "C-word", as his own paper would no doubt call it, is thrown around. He is, of course, the Mail's own Paul Dacre.

Performance, page 46

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...