Canada’s broadcast watchdog says d’accord to the ‘f-word’

Old radio.
Old radio.
Image: Pixabay
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Bonjour, and welcome to the brave new age of radio. The word “fuck” is now officially allowed on Canadian airwaves, during the day, with some notable limitations. Namely, the programming must be in French.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council decided on Nov. 7 that “the English f-word does not have the same offensive connotation in French programming.” Its limited use does not offend broadcast standards, not even if aired on daytime shows.  ”If the word is used infrequently and not as an insult towards a particular person, it will be deemed acceptable in the context of French-language programming,” the CBSC provided in a statement.

The decision is in response to two listener complaints about two separate occasions when the pop-music station CKOI-FM played clips of Madonna and Greenday lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong cursing, which were subsequently discussed in French. A French-language panel analyzed the two programs’ alleged linguistic offenses and found they did not violate the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ code of ethics, which prohibits “unduly coarse or offensive language.”

Madonna uttered her profanity at a protest of Donald Trump’s inauguration in Washington DC in January. There, she addressed “detractors that said this march will never add up to anything” by leading her audience in a rousing chant of “fuck you.”

Armstrong’s cursing came up when a listener called in to the station in March after seeing a Greenday concert. The host spoke to the caller about the famously bad-tempered Armstrong and played a clip of the singer yelling at booing fans, exclaiming, “What the fuck? I’m not fucking Justin Bieber, you motherfuckers!”

These two instances fell within the limited use of profanity in English allowed on French daytime radio broadcasts, the panel deemed. Each clip aired on French language radio, not English, on-air cursing was infrequent, and neither celebrity directed their curses at any one specific individual, the decision pointed out (these were both considered generally directed expressions of “fuck you.”) The panel also agreed with the radio station’s argument that the crude English word is commonplace now, writing:

The Panel emphasizes…that language is evolutionary and reflects current society. The Panel prefers to impress upon broadcasters the need for appropriate viewer advisories and correct classification of programs rather than to target the occasional usage of vernacular language.

Interestingly, English language programming in Canada can’t use English profanity as liberally because the curse doesn’t resonate the same way in the original language as in a foreign tongue, the CBSC noted. ’Fuck’ may sometimes be fine to a limited extent in English programming but not during the day, like in French.

If this distinction sounds confusing, you’re probably unfamiliar with Canada’s double life straddling two major tongues and cultures. For French Canadians, the most offensive curses slander Catholicism. According to the Globe and Mail‘s Tu Thanh Ha, “The CBSC’s view reflects the reality that, while traditional Quebec profanities invoked Catholic liturgical objects such as tabernacles, hosts or ciboria, the F-word—as an interjection, adjective or punctuation—is now often heard in casual, non-aggressive manners.”

The rules for English programming in Canada are similar to the US Federal Communications Commission guidance on profanity and obscenity, which prohibit “indecent and profane content” on TV and radio airwaves between 6am and 10pm (cable TV and satellite radio are not included in the prohibition). That limitation was challenged by ABC in 2012 after the FCC fined the broadcaster for airing part of an awards show in which celebrity Nicole Ritchie swore about getting “cow shit” out of a Prada bag. The US Supreme Court declined to force the FCC to change the rules.

During oral arguments justices acknowledged that the star’s curses were used as part of her common vocabulary. Still, their ultimate decision to let ABC off the hook was procedural and didn’t change the substance of the law. The broadcaster dodged a fine and the rule is still in place, though cursing is now so commonplace that even American politicians swear in public presentations.