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.