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.

In the gutter … looking at the stars



Lord George Brown: a tired and emotional man

There’s a fabulous story about George Brown, the former British Foreign Secretary in Harold Wilson’s first government. It’s almost certainly not true, but it should be.

Brown was a drunk in an era when it was quite acceptable to be a senior member of Her Majesty’s Government while being incapable of functioning as a rational human being. (Ok not much has changed.)

The story goes that Brown was on a trip to South America extolling the virtues of Britain in a post-colonial world. One night, he’d rather over indulged at a very grand reception. From across the room he spotted a talk willowy figure dressed from head to toe in scarlet. He decided he might be in with a chance and sauntered across to the alluring ‘lady in red’.

“Fancy a dance, dear,” he said in the seductive tones of a politically-correct Nobel Prize-winning scientist.

The tall slim figure looked down at Brown disdainfully.

“I’m sorry sir, there are three reasons why I can’t – you are blind drunk, this is not a waltz but the Peruvian national anthem, and I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima.”

For quite a while, the Press turned a blind eye to Brown’s indiscretions. Sobriety was not much valued in the newspaper business in those days, and he was a character. But Private Eye was less inclined to ignore Brown’s activities. The phrase “tired and emotional” was coined as a euphemism to describe his state of consciousness in the service of the realm.

From my teenage years I vaguely remember a story of Brown – then a peer – being found by reporters one evening in the gutter. The incident, which happened in 1976, when Harold Wilson was still in Number 10, prompted an observation in The Times that “Lord George-Brown drunk is a better man than the Prime Minister sober.”

I had sort of forgotten about Brown until he popped up in my life again when I was going through the papers of the late Alastair Hetherington in the special collections at the London School of Economics.

Hetherington, a former editor of the Guardian, ended his career as a professor of journalism at Stirling. Most of his papers are in the University of Stirling library, but LSE has six boxes of material.

LSE’s holdings are almost exclusively file notes of meetings with politicians – mostly Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson (both of whom recognised the importance of the Guardian as the UK’s only left-leaning national newspaper); Jo Grimond the Liberal leader; and Dick Crossman (the Labour politician and professional political gossip).

There are a few records of meetings with Brown, including one at the Shepherd’s Hotel in Cairo where Hetherington walked in on a full-scale row between Brown and his Foreign Office minder; and another of a meeting to discuss the Middle East where Hetherington described Brown as “neither drunk nor sober”. Hands up if you know what he means by that.

In December 1964, two months after the General Election that first brought Wilson to Number 10, Hetherington had dinner with Brown where they gossiped about members of the cabinet, and discussed the economic situation, the state of the pound, and Vietnam – Wilson was decidedly uncomfortable about the Johnson administration’s policy there.

Brown – who was an impressive political operator at his best – impressed Hetherington. But the editor noted: “I was thankful nevertheless that he wasn’t prime minister.” He was not the only one who thought that. Tony Crosland, referring to the contest between Wilson and Brown for the Labour leadership had said it was a choice between a “crook” and a “drunk”.

I thought of the gutter story again on my last night in London when I lost my footing in a pothole near Covent Garden and fell dramatically at the feet of a tourist – finding myself in much the same position as Lord George-Brown in 1976 (though I was sober your honour).

As I lay there on the tarmac, two things came the mind. The first was whether my sprained ankle would be considered to be a work-related injury given I was a on a research trip; the second was Oscar Wilde’s observation: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

I bet George Brown thought that too.


Obama handshake ties up Kennedy loose ends

Americas Summit

Barak Obama and Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas

A handshake and four simple words – “those days are past” – signalled a new era of diplomacy between the United States of America and Latin America. The handshake between presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro at the opening of the Summit of the Americas was the not the first (the two met at Nelson Mandela’s funeral), but it is certainly the most significant.

There is still a long way to go before US-Cuba relations are truly normal, with mutual suspicion and anger still running high. But the pressure to make the thaw work is greater and the diplomatic rebuilding is genuinely underway at last.

Cuba’s isolation is an anachronism, sustained more by the internal politics of the US (Florida in particular) than global politics. It is a loose end left by history – and it is rather satisfying to see a Democratic president tying up one left by another.

John F Kennedy’s presidency was defined by Cuba, first in the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, then in the stand-off with Khrushchev in the Cuban missile crisis.

Global crisis

The extent to which the crisis had transfixed America’s western allies is perhaps best illustrated in the memoirs of a prominent British observer, the Guardian editor of the time, Alastair Hetherington, which are held in the archive of the London School of Economics.

Britain, like the rest of the world, was a bit player during the missile crisis. As Peter Thorneycroft, Harold Macmillan’s defence minister, said: “We were all bystanders.” Macmillan offered support and a shoulder to cry on, but Kennedy was circumspect; this was the United States’ game. Britain may have had a special relationship, but like the rest of the world, Kennedy let Macmillan’s government know only what he wanted it to know.

The Guardian, which had opposed Eden on Suez, was just as concerned about the United States’ intentions against Cuba and opposed direct action. Hetherington, a former major in the Intelligence Corps, had been scarred by the reaction to his newspapers’s opposition to Suez and, as US-Cuba relations deteriorated ever further, he saw history repeating itself, but with much more serious – and more global – consequences.

A Guardian editorial on October 27 1962 addressed the issue of a possible attack on Cuba:

Is the United States about to bomb or invade Cuba? This is now the question. Worse, there is even talk of a possible nuclear attack on Cuba. This is reliably reported as under consideration because the authorities in Washington are so troubled by the rapid approach to readiness of the intermediate range bases on the island. It would be madness.

An American attack on Cuba, he wrote: “would seem to most of the world to be as much a piece of aggression as the British and French attack on Suez.”

The October 27 Guardian leader told Macmillan: “The British Government should make it clear that it must vote against the United States in the United Nations just as the Americans voted against us at Suez.”

Fraught relationship: Nikita Kruschev and John F Kennedy in 1961.
US Department of State, CC BY

Six weeks later, Hetherington met Kennedy in his study in the White House. The president talked for 40 minutes from his rocking chair. Hetherington’s note of their discussions, held in the archive of the London School of Economics, gives an insight into the mind of an editor whose views had been proved wrong by events, and a president who felt his allies had let him down.

On the brink

In the retained memo, Hetherington writes:

I began by saying I thought we ought to apologise for some of the things we’d said – for our misjudgements – at the time of the Cuban crisis. We’d been critical because we thought Kennedy was walking into a trap. We thought that the Russian objective was to establish the missile bases in Cuba as a bargaining counter against which they would try to trade all the American bases in western Europe and Britain. We also thought that the reaction would come with a new blockade of Berlin to balance the blockade of Cuba.

The president was magnanimous: “Kennedy laughed off the apology, and said that perhaps our analysis hadn’t been so far out. But there had been a bit of difficulty with the British press. He hadn’t had the backing he’d expected.”

As Hetherington records it, Kennedy said there were three things about Cuba. There was “deliberate bad faith” on the Russian side. Khrushchev had given “a personal assurance to Kennedy that there would be no offensive missiles in Cuba”.

Fidel Castro and Nikita Kruschev in 1961.
Superdominicano via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

If the US had given in, its allies would have doubted its willingness to defend them in any future crisis. “This, the president said, was more important than the military effect of the missiles in Cuba… The Russians had brought about an open alteration in the balance of nuclear power. This had to be resisted.”

Kennedy told Hetherington: “Our intelligence had said that the Russians would never put offending missiles in Cuba. They would be too exposed… but their intelligence had obviously told Khrushchev that the Americans would not react.”

The most frightening thing about the crisis was just how far the two sides were from understanding each other. Hetherington writes: “Such misunderstanding could easily lead to nuclear war. This was what [Kennedy] found most frightening about the Cuba affair.”

In a statement Kennedy was fated never to see tested, he gave Hetherington his assessment of the likelihood of nuclear conflict: “How, he asked, can we get through the next ten years without nuclear war? He was not sure that we could do so.”

Asked whether there would be more progress on talks to ease tensions, Kennedy said he thought not. “It wasn’t possible to take their word for anything,” he said of the Russians.

The president then proceeded to lecture the editor on his editorial stance. “He thought the greatest flaw in what The Guardian had been writing was our failure to realise that the Russians were expansionist.”

He was dismissive about the need for a European nuclear deterrent. It would be too costly and the issue of political control was too complicated. “The bomb is great until you’ve got it,” Kennedy told Hetherington. National deterrents such as Britian and France’s, in his view, were unnecessary and dangerous.

Latin lessons

Kennedy told Hetherington that America would welcome economic competition with the Russians: “It was a challenge that the Americans would like to meet,” Hetherington reported.

Kennedy’s view was apparently that if the two powers competed economically rather than militarily, the world could benefit. In an exchange that resonates with the agenda for the 2015 Summit of the Americas, Kennedy talked Hetherington through the challenges facing Latin American states:

Kennedy said that yesterday he had been entertaining the president of Honduras, 60% of whose people were illiterate. The day before he had had a long talk with the ambassador of Brazil, where the country was almost bankrupt, and the day before that he had seen another Latin American ambassador, half of whose people were either undernourished or near starvation.

It would be much more profitable if the Russians and the Americans competed in trying to raise standards in these countries. But unfortunately the Soviet Union was not prepared for this kind of peaceful competition. It had the urge to expand.

We live in a different world today. Instead of gauging a president’s attitude to nuclear war, The Guardian is reporting on the beginnings of a real Cuban-American thaw.

The Castros still bear intense antipathy towards Washington and its machinations and it will be a while before an American president goes walkabout on the streets of Havana. But as relations between the two nations start to normalise, with an inevitable exchange of ambassadors, it might not be too long before some fine cigars are at last on their way to the White House in diplomatic bags.

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