In “censoring” Fawlty Towers, the BBC is only following Ofcom’s lead on what viewers find unacceptable

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 23 January 2013

The BBC is under fire for editing an episode of “Fawlty Towers” to remove racist language. Given that the BBC just found itself on the front pages of tabloids for not editing an old episode of the Tweenies shown loads of times before without comment or criticism, you can see why there might have been heightened awareness of potential offence embedded in repeat showings.

Debates like this often fall into political and ideological lines though, with the BBC accused of censorship and rewriting history. It is much more illuminating to look at the impact racist language has with Licence Fee payers and viewers.

It is only a couple of years ago that Ofcom commissioned and published research into the public’s reaction to offensive language on television and radio.

As much as people can argue that a Fawlty Towers edit is against the artistic integrity of the work, is political correctness gone mad, or simply just over-cautiousness by the BBC, public opinion on “potentially discriminatory” language was quite clear clear in the Ofcom study:

“Overall, most potentially offensive words were not seen to be unacceptable in principle, as context was a key factor in determining whether language was seen as generally acceptable or unacceptable. The exception to this was some potentially discriminatory language (particularly ‘Paki’, ‘nigger’ and ‘spastic’) which some participants considered unacceptable in any context.”

I suspect there will be acres of comment columns and green ink spilled on the issue in the next couple of days, but it seems that in this case, the BBC has opted not to broadcast pre-watershed one of the only three words that fall into this category with the viewing public. It was surely the right decision.

2 Comments

Pre-watershed, I'd agree. And arguably it's more offensive to a wider group of people than the oblique reference to Saville (which most Tweenies watchers would have no clue about).

Although being a fan of the likes of Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks and the original Fawlty Towers, I'll stick to post-watershed viewing only.

It is a big mistake to apply today's values to programmes made many years ago. This is opening a can of worms. It is also an insult to our intelligence to think that we need censorship because we cannot make a rational decision for pourselves. The public are quite capable of realising that certain words and phrases are not suitable for current values, but were quite acceptable when the programmes were made. Next stop, clear all the public library shelves in case someone is offended by language used often before they were born. There are many more offensive programmes being made TODAY, without the BBC deciding that we, the public can't be offended by.

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