The story behind the F-word and its Guardian debut


Alastair Hetherington: decision made against advice of lawyers and his senior team

It is still taboo in most newspapers, yet common in a playground. And if you want to say it on the BBC you have to get top brass approval. But the Guardian has just reached the anniversary of a ground-breaking event.

Fifty-five years ago, it became the first national newspaper to use the F-word deliberately – a full 550 years after its debut in court papers about a case involving a man referred to as “Roger Fuckbythenavele”.

“Sexual intercourse began in 1963,” wrote Philip Larkin, “between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP.”

That was certainly true for the Guardian. It had its first “fuck” at the end of the Lady Chatterley trial – after much agonising and a last-minute attempt by senior journalists to dissuade editor Alastair Hetherington from allowing it.

More than half a century later, the F-word is no longer uncommon in the Guardian. Its style guide says: “We are more liberal than many other newspapers, using language that most of our competitors would not.”

Even so, the style guide entry on using the word advises writers: “Use only when relevant, typically when quoting someone.”

Hetherington, who was an expert witness at the trial in October 1960, had not allowed any four-letter words to be reported from the Old Bailey where Penguin Books was accused of obscenity. Later he wrote: “Nor did we use dashes or asterisks, except in the evidence of Richard Hoggart, where direct quotation was unavoidable.”

This policy, which “seemed the most expedient course” according to Hetherington, caused problems when reporting prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones’s opening speech.

As Geoffrey Robertson QC wrote in the Guardian in 2010: Griffith-Jones played the offending words as if they were “trump cards” telling the jury: “The word ‘fuck’ or ‘fucking’ appears no less than 30 times … ‘Cunt’ 14 times; ‘balls’ 13 times; ‘shit’ and ‘arse’ six times apiece; ‘cock’ four times; ‘piss’ three times.”

Griffith-Jones’s mishandling of the prosecution helped Penguin win the case. One of the key moments of the trial was when he asked the jury whether the novel was something “you would even wish your wife or servants to read”.

The Guardian’s policy on what language it would and wouldn’t use was tested after the verdict when columnist Wayland Young (the Labour peer Lord Kennet), quoting Richard Hoggart’s evidence directly, used the F-word.

As reported in his Guardian obituary in 2009, Young was proud to be the first to use the word “fuck” in a national paper. The only previously known example was a typo in the Times in the 1880s, perpetrator unknown.

Hetherington’s columnists were given a free hand “to write on any topic of their choice, regardless of conflict with the paper’s view, provided they refrained from libel or obscenity, kept within the specified length, and delivered their copy on time”.

Young delivered his copy, with the F-word nestling in a quote like a small ticking bomb.

This is what he wrote. “The hero among the witnesses was Richard Hoggart. I think he made history. In his own evidence, using the word in its correct and proper sense, he said the point Lawrence made was: ‘Simply, this is what one does – one fucks’.

“He also gave a model account of the history of puritanism, dealing most intelligently and profoundly with our moral and literary heritage; the prosecution asked if he was serious, and the judge looked amazed. The jury, on the other hand, heard him.”

Hetherington was still editing the Guardian from Manchester. Young’s article arrived by teleprinter mid-afternoon and he asked London editor Gerard Fay to consult the lawyers.

John Notcutt, of Lovell, White and King, thought the risk of being charged under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act – the same one used against Penguin Books – was 50-50. In a day when lawyers dealt in odds, he suggested the chance of being found guilty was six to four against.

But Notcutt warned: “It is wrong to think that the Chatterley finding ‘takes the brake off’, and that anybody can in future get away with anything.”

On printing the offending word, he believed “the Guardian could ‘get away with it’ whereas the Mirror or the Sketch could not”.

But on balance, “speaking as a reader rather than as a legal adviser”, he wondered whether anything was to be gained by printing the passage. Fay agreed. Hetherington deliberated, but the deadline for first edition was upon him.

“While I had no intention of letting such words become commonplace in the paper, this seemed to me the occasion to allow a single usage,” Hetherington wrote in his memoir. Anticipating a fuss, he penned a short editorial entitled Vulgar or not?

The London office had a final go at changing his mind, but Hetherington “doubted whether a ‘better occasion’ would come.” The dam had been broken.

Two days later, critic Kenneth Tynan (later the first to say ‘fuck’ on national television) used the word in an Observer article.

Hetherington dryly observed: “There was not a single complaint from our readers about Wayland’s passage.”

But there was a sting in the tail. Three months later, he found out from the Press Association that the Guardian, Observer and Spectator had been censured by the Press Council for publishing four-letter words used at the trial.

The censure had been issued with no due process, and at a Press Council meeting attended by only six of its 20 members. “There had been no communication of any kind from the council,“ Hetherington wrote later “and therefore no opportunity to put our own view before its members”.

The Guardian printed the judgment on its front page, but it criticised the council’s action to the approval of most readers, print union Natsopa “and a Balliol college don”.

“But,” Hetherington wrote, “a reader in Aberdeen thanked the council for delivering ‘a well-aimed and well-deserved cut across the backside”.

The Aberdonian’s language was on the coy side. As Lady Chatterley’s Lover reveals, Lawrence would have preferred the word “arse”.

  • This story appeared in The Guardian on Saturday November 7 2015.

Public Service broadcasting under threat


God save the… BBC another British institution under threat. The Queen interrupts the news, is her Government is planning to interrupt the BBC


We have America to thanks for the BBC. When broadcasting was in its infancy, the British government looked across the Atlantic at what was happening in the United States, and it didn’t like what it saw.

Lack of regulation combined with competition saw broadcasters going for the lowest common denominator in search of ratings and advertising revenues. In its wisdom, the British government decided to broadcasters would have to apply for a licence, and to ensure Britain remained free of crass commercialism, it issued only one.

The British Broadcasting Company, later the British Broadcasting Corporation was born and, with a dour Scot – John Reith – on charge so too was the principle of public service broadcasting. Reith articulated the BBC’s mission – its purpose in life was to inform, educate and entertain.

By and large it has served Britain well through challenging times, as well as those years when “we never had it so good”. Such has been the BBC’s influence on broadcasting, that the concept of ‘public service’ is embedded even in those channels with a commercial remit (though Channel 5 stretches the boundaries somewhat, it must be said).

Like many institutions, the BBC has its detractors – not least in government (parties of all political persuasions); and over the years it has been subjected to sniping, whispered threats and the occasional full-frontal assault. On occasion the attacks are justified. Even its friends recognise the BBC has the capacity to shoot itself in the foot. More often than not, however, the criticisms are politically motivated.

Although the BBC is an independent body, established by Royal Charter, the government keeps the corporation on a short leash. Its governing body – currently the BBC Trust – is appointed by ministers, and its Charter is up for renewal every 10 years. With this sword of Damocles hanging over its head, the BBC is constantly on its guard.

We are going into a Charter renewal period now, and this time the long grass surrounding Broadcasting House is filled with enemies waiting to pounce. A newly-elected and hubristic government has just released a Green Paper ahead of Charter renewal which questions the role of the BBC in a new digital landscape.

The future of the licence fee is one line of attack, the second is the type of programming the BBC should be focusing its energies on.

Should it be running popular radio stations such as Radio One and Two? Should it be competing with Independent Television in prime time with crowd-pleasers such as Strictly Come Dancing and The Voice? Should it be ploughing public money into soap operas, daytime television and online services?

We have been here before. The BBC has few friends in the national press and they have led the charge – the Murdoch papers, the Daily Mail, the Express – all have their own commercial reasons for wishing to see the BBC cut down to size.

But the truth of the matter is that the BBC is the grit in the commercial oyster. If it did not exist, Independent Television would be much the poorer. Strictly keeps the X-Factor on its toes, EastEnders keeps Coronation Street focused on producing compelling drama; BBC News is a spur to ITN’s newsgathering.

But more important still is the importance of ensuring the principle of ‘public service’ underscores popular programming as well as so-called serious broadcasting.

Radio One is more than just the latest pop. There is no comparison between its non-music output and that available on commercial rivals. The type of informed debate and intelligent news you get on Newsbeat has been driven off other music channels because it is not “commercially viable”. Its output reaches an audience untouched by other media.

If we have learned anything from the last decade, it is that the market alone cannot be trusted to operate for the public good. The Green Paper threatens to do for broadcasting what deregulation did for the banks and the City.

This Charter renewal process threatens an institution that, for all its faults, is an important bedrock of society and a pillar of our cultural life – serious and popular. It should be the last Charter renewal to be managed by politicians. We need to take the future of the BBC out of the hands of people who feel most threatened by its all-seeing eye.


Thank you for the music



The Ulster Orchestra: access to the arts is a right not a privilege

If the Ulster Orchestra is forced to close, the shockwave will be felt around the world. It is one of Northern Ireland’s most successful artistic brands, known internationally through its acclaimed recordings, broadcasts and tours.

But the bigger loss will be to people here who will be robbed of the opportunity to hear some of the world’s greatest music, played live by musicians rooted in this community.

The loss will not just be felt by audiences in its main concert venues, but by communities across Northern Ireland. The players are the backbone of our music education system – working in schools and universities, community groups and with amateur bands across the country.

Politicians make much of the importance of cultural industries to Northern Ireland’s creative economy. The loss of this orchestra would undermine the drive to make this part of the world a creative hub.

For the orchestra, this crisis is the latest in a series of near disasters. It has been structurally underfunded for decades. Public funding is its bedrock. With a tiny private sector here, its capacity to earn income from other sources is severely constrained.

It has pared costs to the bone. Staffing has been cut, and its players – among the worst paid orchestral musicians in the UK – have endured pay freezes to help balance the books. Tightened financial circumstances have limited its capacity to innovate and search for new audiences.

The orchestra has stayed afloat with expressions of goodwill, and short-term injections of cash. But goodwill does not pay the bills, and the sticking plasters have now come off. Long-term, sustainable, investment is needed.

The founding partners – Belfast City Council, the Arts Council/Department of Culture Arts and Leisure, and the BBC – benefit directly from the orchestra’s work. Each faces pressure financially, but they must work together creatively to find a long-term solution. That solution must not just be about stopping the rot.

The future must be built around a vision of what an orchestra could bring to Northern Ireland’s cultural life if it were allowed to reach its full potential. Reducing it to a chamber-sized orchestra or going part-time should not be on the agenda.

There is an opportunity here too for Belfast City Council to learn lessons from other major cities who have used their orchestras to build profile – Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham among them. For too long, some city councillors have seen the orchestra as a ‘middle-class beggar’ holding out its hand for charity. Yet in most years, the orchestra pays more to Belfast City Council in hall hire fees than it receives in grant.

What a joke it would be if the city ended up with two of the finest concert halls in the UK and no orchestra to play in them.

Arts funding is not charity, it is an investment that makes sense economically, culturally, socially and educationally. The arts add value. Every pound of public money generates wealth for the Northern Ireland economy.

As for the middle class tag, I know from personal experience that is nonsense. As the Labour politician Ernest Bevin once said: “Nothing is too good for the working class.” The orchestra draws its audience from all classes and creeds.

One story illustrates what an orchestra can mean to ordinary people. Some years ago, The Irish News ran a competition for tickets to one of its concerts. One afternoon I got a call from a distraught woman from the Markets.

She’d won tickets, but her husband had forbidden her to go. “He’s not stopping me,” she said, asking if she could pick the tickets up rather than having them sent home. Whatever troubles she was facing in her daily life, I know the two hours spent in the Ulster Hall were ones she cherished.

Access to the arts is a right, not a privilege. After almost half a century of service, the orchestra deserves better than this.


  • Tom Collins is a former chairman of the Ulster Orchestra. A version of this article appeared in The Irish News on 22 October 2014




In the beginning was the Tweet


The Reverend Richard Coles: more tea vicar?

I think we need to revise the notion that there are, at most, six degrees of separation.

The theory is that we are no more than half a dozen steps from anyone else on the planet through the introduction of a friend, friends of a friend and so on. It’s an interesting idea, and a fun parlour game. I know someone who claims to have uncovered familial links to Liam Neeson and Sinead O’Connor – now that would be an interesting family gathering.

With the arrival of the internet, I suspect we need to reduce the number of degrees of separation. That came home to me last night during a brief conversation with Radio Four’s resident vicar, the Rev Richard Coles. A former member of the Communards, he is one of the more prolific contributors to the micro-blogosphere. You can find him at @RevRichardColes.

With some 87 thousand tweets to his credit, and some 66 thousand ‘followers’ (such an appropriate term for a Christian clergyman), he is a reasonable sized beast in the world that is Twitter. Quite how he gets time for vicaring and broadcasting is anyone’s guess.

As vicars go, he comes across pretty chilled. He has a brilliant voice for radio; and I imagine his parishioners find comfort in it too. “Please don’t shout at me,” he says in his Twitter profile.

There’s a lot of shouting on Twitter. For some reason it seems to bring out the worst in some people. I have seen people I know and respect turn into foul-mouthed bigots in the course of less than 140 characters. Not, it must be said, the Reverend. His Tweets are the model of propriety. Today, he tells us, is the day dedicated to St Therese of Lisieux – The Little Flower – my granny’s favourite saint.

Anyhow, other than hearing him on the radio (not quite religiously) on Saturday mornings, and seeing his occasional contribution to the BBC’s other broadcast output, I have never met him, never mind had a conversation with him – until last night that is.

He had tweeted a picture of a sunlit interior of a church where he had been ministering to a grieving widow. I’m sure the moment had moved him, and he wanted to share it with the world. I am less sure why I was uncomfortable about that. Perhaps I felt I had unwittingly intruded on someone else’s grief – become a voyeur during a private moment between a woman and her minister.

I should have put my phone down, and snuggled under the duvet, but instead I tapped out a Tweet. “Somethings may be best not tweeted Richard,” I said.

The “Richard” is much too familiar, and reading it now, the sentiment is high-minded. Patronising. Pompous.

You don’t normally expect a response. But a few moments later my phone pinged at me. “I don’t follow,” the reverend typed back – breaking the glass wall between performer and audience. “Private moments often best left that way,” I wrote. “Just a thought.” You could see I was feeling guilty. “Hope she got some solace. Am sure she did.”

In the face of celebrity I, like most of the rest of us, tend to crawl. “Picture taken later,” he replied – as indeed he had mentioned in his initial Tweet. “And a nice picture too,” I fawned. My phone did not ping again. Like me, I imagine he decided bed was a better bet than a row about nothing with a complete stranger.

I will never really understand what drives us to confessional moments, opening out worlds to the views of others; or why others become judgmental presuming to give a gentle ticking off to someone we do not know in a public forum.

Let he who is without sin cast the first Tweet.


Live music – the gift that keeps on giving

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra opened its new season in Glasgow last night. It was a blistering occasion – a heady mixture of Russian music, Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain, Scriabin’s Piano Concerto and Shostakovich’s tenth symphony. The City Halls were packed for the concert, which featured the Tchaikovsky prize-winning pianist Barry Douglas (above) and which was conducted by the orchestra’s charismatic chief conductor Donald Runnicles. It was broadcast live on Radio 3.

In the classical music world, the future of the BBC orchestras is a constant topic of idle speculation, and over the past couple of months the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra has been the subject of particular attention. One of the consequences of Scottish independence would have been the break-up of the BBC. Whether a Scottish broadcaster would have had the resources – or indeed the inclination – to maintain the orchestra was unclear.

The BBC’s pivotal role in the development of classical music in Britain cannot be underestimated. It remains one of the primary patrons of new music, in addition to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, it sustains orchestras in Wales and England (the BBC Symphony, the BBC Philharmonic and the BBC Concert orchestras) and its funding for the Ulster Orchestra is critical to its survival. The BBC Proms remains one of the most remarkable festivals of music in the world today.

Times have changed, resources are limited, and the pressure on BBC Radio Three is enormous.

When the Ulster Orchestra was founded in the 1980s, its funding model was supposed to be rolled out across the BBC orchestras. The BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra morphed into a new organisation with the Beeb as a partner alongside the Arts Council, Belfast City Council and the private sector (in the form of tobacco giant Gallaher – now JTI).

Luckily for the other orchestras, the experiment stopped there. Unfortunately for the Ulster Orchestra, it has left it in a perilous position – underfunded by the Arts Council (itself underfunded by a Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure which is no champion for the arts) and neglected by Belfast City Council which does not understand the value of this cultural asset.

The notion that the private sector in Northern Ireland would step up to the plate was fanciful. There’s no private sector there worth talking about.

Compared with its sister city Belfast, Glasgow is well served. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Scottish Ensemble and the BBCSSO all command audiences, and the music scene is vibrant.

They benefit from being able to draw on a larger population base than their Belfast cousins. But crucially they are based in a city which has put cultural tourism at the heart of its strategy. Glasgow is proud of its cultural assets in a way Belfast is not – for all the investment there has been in capital infrastructure in recent years.

As the broadcasting environment changes, the BBC orchestras will face more and more challenges to justify themselves.

Many people will have little sympathy for an art form for which they find it hard to relate to, and the arts are an easy target for the number-crunchers and bean counters. The creative industries rely on people, and people are expensive.

But without creativity, we are nothing. Directly and indirectly, the creative industries feed our souls and have a significant impact on things we do value as a society – the creation of wealth. In a world where brain rather than brawn is the key differentiator, creativity has added importance.
Our musicians, actors, dancers and singers provide the type of creative environment which stimulates our minds.

And there is another reason why we should support and sustain our orchestras. There is nothing quite like the communal experience of sitting in a hall with 1,000 strangers experiencing music live. There is a level of engagement and excitement which cannot be replicated (as BBC Radio 3 discovered through its ill-fated experiment in broadcasting concerts ‘as live’ rather than live).

We live in a needy world, we have to priorities where we spend our money, but a world which has no place for the arts and creativity, which has no ears for music, is not worth inhabiting.