Ricky Gervais: Science
Channel 4, 14 October 2011, 22:35
Ricky Gervais: Science was a programme featuring a stand-up show by the comedian Ricky Gervais. This post-watershed programme focussed on Ricky Gervais’s outspoken thoughts on a variety of topics including racism, fame, obesity, religion and language.
At one point during his routine, Ricky Gervais referred to the singer Susan Boyle, and he made the following remark:
Look at Susan Boyle. If you can. Fucking hell! Jesus Christ. Oh. Shocking. Be fair though, „cause usually in the music industry it’s all about image isn’t it, you can’t just have a great voice and a great talent… but I don’t think she’d be where she was today if it wasn’t for the fact that she looked like such a fucking mong.
The comedian then proceeded to debate with an imaginary complainant who might object to his use of the word mong on television:
mong?. Yeah he did. Yeah. You can’t say „mong?. You can. It’s fucking easy. It’s one of the easiest words to say, it’s like [mouths the word while he says it] „mong?, it’s like, you just need lips, „mo…?, even mongs can say it, that’s part of the beauty of the word.
He continued in the same vein.
Ofcom received three complaints about Ricky Gervais’s comments. They concerned his repeated use of the word mong, which complainants regarded as offensive because of its derogatory association with Down’s Syndrome.
Ofcom considered Rule 2.3 of the Code, which states:
In applying generally accepted standards broadcasters must ensure that material which may cause offence is justified by the context… Appropriate information should also be broadcast where it would assist in avoiding or minimising offence.
Ofcom Decision: Not in Breach of Rule 2.3
We noted that Ricky Gervais’s example about how the meaning of words changes by saying:
When I came here tonight I called you all „cunts?, remember? That used to be an insult, but now it’s a term of endearment. So words change. Okay.
In Ofcom’s view, while this clearly drew the focus of the routine on to the subject of how words change, thereby potentially minimising the offence, it was nevertheless clearly also done in a tongue-in-cheek way. This may have caused some viewers to question his assertion that he had not used either the words cunt or mong in an intentionally offensive way.
However we considered that the degree of offensiveness was reduced to some extent by many in the audience knowing Ricky Gervais’ reputation for acerbic, controversial and challenging humour, and understanding that Ricky Gervais was likely to have been being knowingly disingenuous when he said the word mong was no longer linked with Down’s Syndrome, and that the word cunt was now a term of endearment. Ofcom considered that the material would not have exceeded viewers’ expectations for Ricky Gervais’s type of humour.
Ofcom also had regard to the fact that Channel 4 is a public service broadcaster with a unique statutory remit to broadcast a range of high quality and diverse programming, and this may include programming that is provocative and controversial.
We noted that the programme began at 22:35, more than an hour and a half after the watershed, and that therefore most viewers of the programme would have been expecting stronger and more challenging content.
We also took into account that Channel 4 brought the challenging nature of the content to the attention of viewers with a warning at the start of the programme, which stated that it would contain strong language and adult humour.
We therefore concluded that several aspects of this content had the potential to cause considerable offence. However, on balance, this potential offence was justified by the context of this provocative comedy routine challenging the evolution of words, as broadcast with a warning as part of a late night comedy show on Channel 4. Channel 4 therefore applied generally accepted standards, and the broadcast of Ricky Gervais’ comments was not in breach of Rule 2.3.
Ofcom takes this opportunity to remind all broadcasters that its recent 2010 research shows that the word mong has the potential to be highly offensive to many people, and so broadcasters should take great care with its use.