Neil McNicholas: Switched off by bad language the BBC refuses to curb

I HAVE just wasted a half-hour of my life that I will never get back again between the end of the football match I was watching and the start of a perfectly innocent sounding programme on BBC4 about diamond thefts.

As usual with the BBC, only seconds before the programme they warned viewers that it contained “strong language” and therefore I switched it off. Why does a programme about diamonds have to contain strong language and who would ever imagine that it would?

And so I have written yet another letter of complaint to the BBC – a waste of another half-hour of my life. I had given up writing such letters because nothing ever changes, but every once in a while I get sufficiently incensed – especially when my time has been wasted yet again waiting for a programme I then have to switch off – that I will send the Beeb yet another missive which they will duly file in the garbage (which seems to be the sum total of their regard for the viewing public – and we pay their salaries).

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The thing is though that if I stood in a public space somewhere and shouted foul-mouthed language at anyone passing by, I would be arrested – and rightly so. But our television companies can broadcast such language into the public space of the air waves where anyone trying to peacefully watch their television would be subject to those obscenities and yet no arrests are made.

And I think I’m right in saying that if, as an adult, I were to use sexually explicit language to a minor, I could be arrested on child abuse charges, and yet our television companies can subject young viewers to such language and no such charges are brought.

Yes, we all know about the 9pm watershed but we also know it’s a joke. It helps salve someone’s conscience somewhere in the system, but it is still a joke. There are always going to be children watching the television post-9pm unsupervised, and they should not be subjected to obscene language or morally offensive programme content.

It may well be that, for whatever reasons, cable channels are not subject to such controls and restrictions, but the far more accessible terrestrial channels should be – and especially a public broadcasting corporation such as the BBC which, by definition, should be held to a much higher standard.

A typical response will be that if I am offended by a particular programme I can always turn it off, but why should I have to? I have paid good money for the so-called privilege of being able to switch on my television, so why should I have to switch it off? Another response – this time from the BBC – is that their programmes simply reflect real life.

If I wanted to watch, and listen to, “real life” I can sit on my doorstep for free. I have paid good money not to be offended but to be entertained and educated by television programming – which is what TV does best as and when our broadcasters get round to it.

If, in spite of it all, television companies and corporations are allowed to continue broadcasting offensive programme content, then I would advocate that they should be forced to publish a scaled rating system for every programme in the TV magazines – as they do for films – to give viewers an idea ahead of time what they are in for.

That way we wouldn’t waste time waiting for an innocent sounding programme only to discover at the last minute that it isn’t so innocent. Why are our broadcasters reluctant to do that? Might it be because they are afraid of losing potential viewers, whereas if they can trick us into waiting all evening for a programme we had wanted to watch, they hope we will watch it anyway regardless of its content.

As I have said, the BBC, as a public corporation, has in my opinion a very particular responsibility with regard to the content of its programming. It doesn’t have to broadcast obscenities and clearly the Beeb knows full well what is likely to cause offence (even though they say it’s subjective) otherwise they wouldn’t issue a warning at all – albeit at the last minute.

Now Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps suggests the television licence fee could be reduced unless the BBC can win back the public’s trust! As far as I am concerned the Corporation has a considerable way to go to earn even my respect, much less my trust.

I’m told an inscription was added in the entrance hall of Broadcasting House when it first opened in 1932 which reads in part: “This Temple of the Arts and Muses is dedicated to Almighty God. It is (the governors’) prayer that good seed sown may bring forth a good harvest, that all things hostile to peace or purity may be banished from this house.”

The noise you hear is Lord Reith spinning in his grave!

*Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Middlesbrough.