Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Channel Five's "Britain's Fattest Teenager" Not in Breach of Broadcasting Code

Ofcom has ruled that Channel Five's "Britain's Fattest Teenager" is not in breach of the broadcasting code in spite of the on-air use of the word "cunt" just after 9 p.m. The network broadcast an advisory because 9 p.m. is a watershed hour. After receiving complaints, Ofcom investigated the use of the word, twelve minutes into the episode.

"The word was used by him [the subject of the episode--Ed.]in relation to the insults he was subjected to. Five was asked to comment on the use of the word in relation to Rule 2.3 of the Code (generally accepted standards)....

"Five said that this was an observational programme following Jonathan, a teenager with a very serious weight problem. As far as possible and where appropriate, Five stated that it wanted the film to accurately reflect Jonathan’s life, so the viewer understood his lifestyle and attitudes as well as the environment in which he lived, including the adverse comments and abuse to which he was subject.

"Five further stated that in the second half of the programme there was a discussion about the insults Jonathan was subjected to and the abuse he received as a result of his physical appearance. Jonathan recounted the taunts which included “you fat bastard” as a football chant and “there’s that fat cunt off Trisha” (a reference to Jonathan appearing previously on the Trisha programme). Five believed it was important for viewers to understand the way Jonathan was insulted by strangers in the street and the impact it had on him. To this end, Five felt it was inappropriate to ‘bleep’ out the swearing, including the word “cunt”, as they considered it would have considerably undermined the viewers’ understanding of the story.

"Five further stated that whilst the word “cunt” was used as a taunt aimed at Jonathan, the manner in which he recounted the story was not aggressive, and as a result any potential offence caused to viewers associated with the use of the word would have been significantly undermined. Five also pointed out that the programme was preceded by a strong language warning, and the Controller at Five responsible for the programme specifically sanctioned the use of this language which, it was felt, was important in telling Jonathan’s story. They went on to say that given the nature of the programme, the likely adult audience, the warning which preceded the programme and the fact that the swear word complained of appeared later in the first part of the programme (not immediately after the watershed) Five believed its use was justified in the particular context....

"Research into swearing carried out by Ofcom (Language and Sexual Imagery in Broadcasting: A Contextual Investigation, September 2005) indicates that the word “cunt” is amongst those considered the most offensive . The Code states that broadcasters must ensure that its use must be justified by the context.

"Ofcom considered that this was a serious documentary recording the difficulties faced by a teenager with weight problems. The use of the word by Jonathan was not aggressive but used by the teenager when describing the regular abuse he suffered. Ofcom acknowledged Five’s explanation that to bleep out the word might have lessened the impact of such abuse and its effects on the boy. Ofcom also noted that the programme was preceded by a verbal warning, The programme contains strong language…”. The impact of the word was also lessened as it was not necessarily readily distinguishable.

"Taking the above into account, on this occasion, Ofcom did not consider there was a breach of the Code. However it should be noted that only in exceptional cases will it be acceptable to broadcast the word “cunt” close to the watershed.  Further, Ofcom believed that, given the time of broadcast, the warning could have been clearer...."

Read the entire Ofcom ruling here. Read a story about the ruling in the Media Guardian here.

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