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Friday, July 09, 2010

Do we have to revisit the sweary bits of Live Aid?

It's twenty-five years since Live Aid. In most quarters this will pass unremarked. The One Show on BBC-1 are doing an item about "things you didn't know (or have forgotten) about Live Aid" and they wanted me to tell the story about Bob Geldof saying "give us your fucking money" while I was interviewing him live on air. Since the point of this story is that he didn't say that (instead he said "fuck the address") I always feel that I'm letting people down.

Telling a story like this on TV is difficult enough, given the impatience of editors with any story that has to be told in a joined-up way or not at all. When the nub of that story is to contrast two sentences, both containing a word that you can't say on TV at tea time, this is near impossible. The producer in this case said he'd "have to check it with Ed Pol". You will quickly work out that Ed Pol is not an actual person but Corporation shorthand for "editorial policy". (BBC people always refer to their internal bureaucracy as if it is a given, rather like gravity.) Anyway Ed Pol said that obviously I couldn't say the word, nor could they bleep me saying the word and nor could I replace it with "effing". I had a similar experience with a Radio Four programme I did about bootlegs where we played parts of the Troggs Tapes. This was safely after the watershed but unsurprisingly we couldn't run it without bleeping the offending words. What surprised me is that Ed Pol would only allow them a specific number of bleeps.

I can understand zero tolerance of swearing. It worked for fifty years. I suppose I can also understand the arguments for total tolerance, though I think you have to take into account the fact that swearing is tiring to listen to and, if the swearing is being done by somebody you don't happen to be close to, removes a layer of skin from your soul with each obscenity. What I don't really understand is the curious halfway house we're in at the moment, where Ed Pol imposes quotas and you're allowed certain things at certain times. If the Geldof incident was an embarrassment at the time, what's the point of revisiting it 25 years later on a channel and at a time where you can say less about it than you could say at the time? It was live, which says all you need to say about it. In fact shouldn't the live blurt be the only acceptable excuse for swearing on the TV?

I don't buy the idea that TV has to change to reflect the manners of society. It's TV. Not real life. There was a time, not long ago, when you couldn't swear at all on the TV. Wasn't that also the era that produced Boys From The Black Stuff, The Singing Detective, Fawlty Towers and all the other programmes that people now look back on as the golden age?