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12 August 2020

What the BBC got wrong about its use of the N-word live on air

The corporation wouldn't use a swear word in this manner, and should apply the same rule for racial slurs.

By Stephen Bush

One of the difficult questions when reporting on hate crimes and abuse is how much detail to go into. Too much and you cause unnecessary upset to viewers and listeners.

As I wrote when two Labour MPs were under scrutiny for “offensive” remarks, when the remarks themselves are the story, they have to be discussed and revealed. What distinguished Jared O’Mara’s historic forum posts was that they were virulently and violently homophobic. They were out of date not just in 2017, when they came to light, but a decade earlier when they were made. The words used were the essence of the story and, therefore, I thought that to understand why Labour MPs were upset, you had to know that the content of O’Mara’s posts was truly remarkable. Hugh Gaffney’s words were, yes, crass; yes, language belonging to another time; and yes, language I was surprised an MP used, but to read them was to understand why Labour MPs were calling for Gaffney to attend a course, and for O’Mara to be expelled.

I don’t think, journalistically, we should treat racial slurs all that differently from swear words – as language that people do not wish to have directed at them and many people do not wish to be exposed to without warning or good reason, but which may in extreme cases be necessary to use in order to provide important context to a story. We shouldn’t give the N-word any more – or indeed any less – power than the F-word. Both approaches stem from flawed ways of thinking about race: to treat the N-word as more powerful than the F-word reinforces the idea that race – at least at the level we can perceive – is something more than a construct. To treat it as less is to suggest that a swear word based on my skin colour is any less offensive than one based on any other aspect of my personality. There can be times when being explicit about the language used is necessary in order to inform the reader, but that test – of providing important context – remains unchanged.

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But, of course, that general rule of thumb doesn’t rescue you from a number of hard cases where those rules can’t help you.

Ultimately, the journalist or journalists in question have to make a judgement: is this a story where the offensive language is sufficiently important that I have to use it on air or in print? And the line will be different for different outlets at different times of day. We accept that there may be cause to use fruitier language on Newsnight than Newsround, for example.  

In 2017 and 2018 the BBC opted not to quote the remarks made by O’Mara or Gaffney, but on 29 July it did opt to use the N-word live on air, during an item on BBC Points West about a racially motivated hit-and-run attack on an NHS worker in Bristol, triggering a flurry of complaints. It has since accepted thatwe should have taken a different approach at the time of broadcast and we are very sorry for that”. The BBC’s initial response, however, defended its use of the word on two grounds: that it provided important context, and that the victim’s family asked both that a horrifying image of his wounds and the words used in the attack were shown and said on air. 

The latter reason is stronger than the former, which falls apart on closer examination – indeed, for it to work, there has to be a specific power to the N-word that we wouldn’t attach to the F-word, that somehow, the act of hearing the N-word gives us a sympathy to someone who has been driven over by a car that we otherwise would not have.

If the alleged assailants had called the victim a “f***ing black”, they wouldn’t have been using a specific slur, but the story would be materially unaltered: it would have been a hit-and-run attack on a black person in which their blackness was an essential part of why they were under attack. But the BBC would certainly not use the F-word before the watershed, on Points West or anywhere else for that matter. The BBC would in general avoid using the F-word on air and I don’t see why there is a particular difference here. The story would not be materially different if the assailants had referred to their victim as black, a person of colour, or whatever language you choose: the central aspect would remain unchanged. It’s just using bad language for bad language’s sake.

[see also: The BBC must strive to be impartial but it should never be timid]

The offensive language does not provide additional context to this story and therefore wasn’t necessary, any more than it would be necessary for me to go beyond saying “some Conservative MPs are quite angry about Dominic Cummings’ breaking lockdown” on TV or our podcast and instead to go into explicit detail about the bad language used. 

But the family’s wishes add further complexity. They wanted both his words, and the picture of his injuries to be used in order to convey the full power of what happened to him. And there’s an understandable desire to do right by the family. I think, on balance, I would have said: I understand why you want this, but for many people, the use of X-rated language on air will be upsetting, and unnecessarily so. But others can reasonably disagree. That’s why while you can have broad rules, you are always going to have tricky borderline cases.

I think it’s regrettable, however, that instead of talking about that, the BBC instead opted to defend the journalistic merits of the language used, which didn’t meet the BBC’s own standards. Its subsequent apology also needs to extend to a wider demonstration that it won’t bend its own rules on offensive language for racial slurs.