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BBC breached code over use of ‘the r word’

Posted in Attitudes to disability, Language, Media by Matt at WelcometoIllinois on December 9, 2008

The Independent reports that the BBC has been found to have breached the Broadcasting Code after a US comedian described Sarah Palin’s son, who has Down’s Syndrome, as “retarded”.

While I support the campaign to reduce the use of the word “retard” I have also previously argued that its use can be justified by context.

Taking a look at Ofcom’s ruling it is clear that wasn’t the word itself that was found to have breached the code but the context in which it was used, and the BBC presenter’s failure to apologise:

“Ofcom notes that the comedian made references to individuals as “retarded”. Research indicates that views on this term are split. It is considered by some to be highly offensive, while others are less concerned by its use.

Ofcom acknowledges that BBC 6 Music attracts a predominantly adult audience and that regular listeners who are familiar with the irreverent style of its presenters and guests may not necessarily find the use of words such as “retard” offensive.

When dealing with generally accepted standards, the Code refers specifically to offence that may be caused by discriminatory treatment and language based on disability. In this case, the word “retarded” was used in a particularly derogatory manner. Further, references to Down’s Syndrome were also made in a clearly offensive way. First, a child with Down’s Syndrome was described as retarded. Second, there was a highly offensive comment which described Down’s Syndrome as a form of punishment by God. Both of these, in Ofcom’s opinion, went well beyond generally accepted standards and the audience’s expectations for this programme. In this case in was clear that the context did not justify these offensive comments.

Ofcom was also concerned that during the broadcast the presenter did not give what it considered to be a sufficient reprimand or apology, which could have served to reduce the offence.”

The comments were made by American comedian Doug Stanhope, on a digital channel, BBC 6 Music, and prompted one complaint, according to Ofcom. If you want to know precisely what he said, take a look at the ruling.

The R Word Campaign


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