Let’s talk about swearing in journalism. Once upon a time, there was none, at least not commonplace as it is now. For a swear word to reach print or, heaven forbid, the airwaves, it took long, anguished philosophical debate or monumental carelessness in the editorial process.
I remember as a cadet on the Courier-Mail in Brisbane a rolling argument through high levels and low about publishing a review of a small play called Norm and Ahmed by Alex Buzo, which included its controversial punchline. The play was one of Ozlit’s first forays that I can remember into the fraught topic of race relations. Its dramatic height came with either Norm or Ahmed (it hardly matters which) advising the other to go fornicate, in the Big Word that was considered most shocking in the 1960s.
Maybe we published the review with the word in and maybe we didn’t. I don’t remember. The point here is that swearing in print then was a serious business. It might have been a normal mode of speech in the community but print gave it a weight and a meaning that pushed it into a different dimension and required the highest level of editorial discretion and decision.
Many years later, I interviewed for Australian Business magazine a fellow who swore constantly. Every sentence was peppered with expletives; even words were split with them. It’s a wonder the tape didn’t shrivel up and my recorder expire from the heat.
Now this posed a problem. Swearing, especially the big words, was still rigorously censored in the mainstream press, and, when you couldn’t avoid certain words because they were essential to the meaning of a statement, they were expurgated with asterisks, as in f***ing. (The practice continues spasmodically today, of course, although the popular news websites generally use only one asterisk, as in f*ck.)
But it’s usually only odd words. My interview was something else – two hours of hard-core swearing, with a thick vein of blasphemy running through it. If we’d asterisked every Big Word, the page would have ended up looking like a field of scotch thistles.
My editor didn’t waste time. He was (and remains) a great man of words, a master of the English language, and one who, although he knew his way around the public bar, himself rarely resorted to vulgarity.
“Write it up and leave all the words in,” he said.
The interviewee was one of the white shoe brigade, a property developer who didn’t let much get in his way – a bit of a rogue, a character, and very funny in that dry, Aussie digger kind of way. This was an interview that revealed at least part of his character to the world; it was also a Christmas feature (we photographed the chap in a Santa suit) and it had to be entertaining.
The story ran with long passages of verbatim quotes – hilarious stories of how my subject effed various country members, and how he intended to be the biggest bloody male organ of them all. The bastards, in fact, could all go and get fornicated. Etc, etc and, for crissakes, etc. The only bits I censored were the blasphemies, figuring they were more likely to upset our readers than crude descriptions of propagating the species, bodily functions and human nether regions.
Never, in my view, was swearing in print more justified, unlike so much of the profanity in written journalism today. Everybody does it. Even The Spectator, that bastion of conservative writing, routinely prints low level swearing (like “shitty”) and often enough, I was startled to realise, those once rather more serious words are offered as the considered language not of beer-gutted police roundsmen but highly educated, cultured journalists. It seems that if you want to look cool, a gratuitous crudity will do it for you.
Now I confess I may have uttered the odd profanity myself over the years, only when under pressure you understand, and – I know you’ll find this hard to believe – at times the various newsrooms where I worked have rung with stiffing and blinding of the crudest and most emphatic kind. But none of that ever reached the eyes or ears of our audiences.
We used to clean up the speech of others, too. If someone said something was a bloody disgrace, it would be reported without the “bloody”. If it came to that, no one was allowed to speak ungrammatically or disjointedly. We knew what was meant and so we fixed up the English. Even TV and radio were generally kind to those with the microphones in their faces.
The intention was respectful. Why let the person you’re quoting look like a fool just because he or she made a mistake? It didn’t help anyone, and you might just embarrass a valuable contact for no discernible gain. Not that we really thought about it all that much, nor in those terms. We just did it.
Then along came Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, and a whole generation of journalists began to understand that a verbatim quote skillfully used could be just as devastating to the speaker as pages of ridicule. Transcription of Joh’s much parodied, infamous incoherences laid waste to his political credibility and provided a kind of farcical counterpoint to the corruption of his era.
Now, in the world of social media where privacy, respect for others and journalistic judgment have been suborned by immediacy, mindless commentary and malicious nit-picking, everything goes verbatim from recorder directly to print. Meaning gets drowned in “you know”, “to be honest”, “like”, “absolutely”, as if these verbal tics make quotes more real and therefore more credible.
“To be honest” really gets me. When I hear someone say something like “to be honest, I didn’t know FIFA was rotten”, I immediately suspect this person isn’t being honest at all. When I see it in print I have to ask myself whether the journalist has left in “to be honest” in order to satirise the speaker in the Joh-quote manner or is just plain lazy. On a website I know for certain it’s laziness.
Journalism today would benefit from the return of editors and sub-editors who paid attention to the words presented by their reporters and commentators, and who actually had respect for the English language and for the subjects of their work. The sloppy, careless stuff we’re presented with every day, especially on mainstream websites, might be worse than gratuitous swearing, The lack of thought behind both exposes serious decline – in journalistic standards, and in broader civil society.
It’s enough to make a man swear.