As the manager at Ofcom who headed its 2016 Offensive language research, I wanted to make a few points about the regulator’s (now) controversial decision to breach the Family At War 1970-2 drama series shown on Talking Pictures TV for a character repeatedly using the racist term “wog” – see the Bulletin, 19 February 2018. The controversy fills almost the whole of page 3 of The Times today and even merits an article in the leader column of The Thunderer.
I did not want to comment at first because I blogged about essentially the same issue after the previous breach against the same channel concerning the use of “sambo” in a 1957 crime drama (see my 8 January 2018 blog). As I said then there is no absolute prohibition on the use of racist language during daytime. It all depends on context.
I can still recall as part of the 2016 research how the team played clips of racist language from historical programmes to our sample audience, and how sophisticated their response was. They had an intense dislike of racist language, but overall also understood how its use could be justified by the context in programmes from the past.
I can still remember when I was at Ofcom the debate there was before breaching the same channel in January 2017 for the use of “coon” when an actress was retelling an anecdote about an incident just after the Second World War. I hope there was a similarly robust debate before reaching this decision – but am a little concerned there was not.
There is a risk that Ofcom may be becoming too interventionist here – and applying contemporary standards about the offensiveness of racist language a little too readily to programmes which, after all, are in their own way historical documents. Ofcom I think needs to take more account of the expectations of the over-55 audience for channels like this (without of course condoning what may be a greater tolerance for such language in older generations). Ofcom cannot only say in my view that racist language can be justified in drama series or films with an overt anti-racist message, or in drama where a racist character has his comments almost immediately challenged or there is some form of moral retribution.
On the other hand, in my view channels must also be sensible. Talking Pictures TV has not helped its own cause. It may well be that it receives complaints from viewers if it plays out a warning about offensive language before a programme is shown. So be it. Some of its audience may be comfortable with racist language but others less so, and above all channels have a duty to reflect contemporary disapproval of such language as reflected in the Ofcom Code. It can do so with proper warnings.