Peter Robinson: The volume and frequency of the use of profanity on TV is now of pandemic proportions

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Friday, 23rd April 2021, 6:48 am
Updated Friday, 23rd April 2021, 6:56 am
Peter Robinson is a former first minister of Northern Ireland and DUP leader. He writes a column for the News Letter every other Friday, and the next column will appear on May 7

I know it’s hard to push the Northern Ireland Protocol from the spotlight, but I will take this week off.

There is no point in having a regular column if you don’t occasionally have a personal rant.

It did not occur to me, to the extent it now has, but because I have retired from the 16 hour a day grind of politics, combined with the enforced lockdown restrictions, I have notched-up more television viewing hours than at any time in several decades.

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When children observe behaviour modelled by similarly aged children on television, they will perceive those behaviours as acceptable, scientific studies suggest

I have been stunned at the volume and frequency of the use of profanity on television programmes and in movies.

It is now of pandemic proportions.

Cursing is no longer confined to the occasional expletive when a hammer hits a finger, it is gratuitously embedded in most programmes — even in movies designated for 12-year-old children.

Studies in America — where a significant proportion of our television content originates — show that broadcast networks have been increasingly creating and airing programmes in which adult language is being spoken even by minor-aged child actors.

Various scientific studies suggest that when children observe behaviour modelled by similarly aged children on television, they will perceive those behaviours as normative and acceptable. 

I am not a prude nor insulated from the reality that swearing is commonplace for many, and for some it occurs more habitually than others.

As a football fan I know only too well that some fans find it impossible to refer to the referee and avoid an obscenity in the same sentence.

I also know I cannot control other people’s behaviour and what is acceptable to me may not be to them — and the reverse is also true.

I am sufficiently pragmatic to even accept that it would be virtually impossible to turn back this tide.

However, each of us should be able to watch programmes with content that is acceptable for our families and ourselves.

At present parental controls are based on blocking certain programmes and through the use of the on/off switch.

We deserve better than the simplistic retort that you can just turn off your television or watch some profanity-free programme if you can find it.

So, what is the answer?

I do not rely on the dual soundtracks’ solution — one with swearing and one without. Though it would be an improvement particularly for some movies.

The best resolution is quite simple really. It should be compulsory for television companies to provide adjustable profanity filters.

In the USA, TV filters can be purchased off the shelf, and according to reviews they appear to work reasonably well in most circumstances.

Indeed since 2013 companies in the US are legally required to provide closed captioning to enable filtering.

Yet why should we have to purchase such a device when it could be part of the purchase price of our television or the cost of the services we purchase from our satellite and cable providers.

Incorporating the profanity filtering option into their offering does no violence to any other viewer including those who feel that the removal of obscene language would make the narrative less authentic.

They retain the ability to continue as before but the filter option allows those of us who would rather be spared this earthy verbiage the means to have it muted or replaced.

I am told the technology is straight-forward, the equipment advance-monitors the hidden closed-captioning signal and compares the words to be used with its database of unacceptable content and mutes the words or sentence and, if you wish, displays replacement text on the screen.

In short, such a filter would enable us to watch the programming we want without listening to language we don’t.

Everyone would get what they want and pay for.

It is not a matter of cost as filter users could be asked to pay a small fee for using the software.

Yes, it is logical, doable and the demand is there, which raises the question, ‘why has it not happened?’

I cannot answer that question, but it is clear it is being strongly resisted by those in the industry who want to spread such content. However, I can answer the question about how they could be forced to provide this feature.

Legislation could be introduced to require significantly advanced parental controls for television requiring software to be downloaded into satellite boxes.

I am told there are no insurmountable technical barriers and there is no loss of anyone’s liberty or rights.

Quite the opposite, it extends the right of choice and empowers parents to self-determine what is suitable for them and their children to watch and hear without limiting the programmes they can view.

Quod erat demonstrandum.

Peter Robinson is a former first minister of Northern Ireland and DUP leader. He writes this News Letter column every other Friday, and the next column will appear on May 7

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