Gervais cleared over 'mong' gag

Ofcom rules Ricky was justified

Broadcast watchdogs have cleared Ricky Gervais for using the word ‘mong’ on TV.

Three viewers complained to Ofcom over the broadcast of his stand-up show Science on Channel 4 last year, in which he said that Susan Boyle ‘wouldn’t be where she was today if it wasn't for the fact that she looked like such a fucking mong’.

He then repeated the word several times as he staged an imaginary debate with someone who might have taken offence – as he claimed the word no longer had links with people with Down’s Syndrome, as it once did.

Although he said that, ‘When she first came on the telly, I went, “Is that a mong?”,’ he insisted: ‘I don't mean she has Down’s Syndrome, by the way. No! No that would be offensive. That word doesn't mean that any more.’

In response to the complaints, Channel 4 said that viewers would know what to expect from a late-night broadcast ‘featuring a comic well known for his controversial humour’ – adding that he ‘experiments with language on the edge of what is acceptable’.

The broadcaster added: ‘Ricky Gervais‟s humour was rooted in the explanation of how language evolves and how the word can be used as a term of endearment thereby condemning the original interpretation and mocking people who censor the use of the word altogether.’

And they claimed the joke was not directed at Susan Boyle as having a disability but ‘ those who refuse to acknowledge that the meanings of words can adapt over time’.

Channel 4 argued that it should be allowed risks, and said that stand-up from controversial artists ‘often involves fine judgment calls at senior editorial and legal levels... This involves a process of intelligent assessment of content, especially with someone like Ricky Gervais, to decide where the line should be drawn’.

In ruling that the show did not break broadcast guidelines, Ofcom stressed that that the word ‘has the potential to be highly offensive to many people, and so broadcasters should take great care with its use’.

Regulators added that in the name of freedom of expression, no word was banned after the watershed – but there must be a good reason for using language many people find offensive.

Ofcom’s own research found that many people did not know of ‘mong’ came from the term ‘mongoloid’ – an offensive term for people with Down‟s syndrome – but it ‘could cause considerable offence to those who are aware of the association’.

They said that Gervais’s use of the word in connection to Boyle‟s appearance ‘would have led some viewers to believe that [he] was using the word “mong” intentionally to refer to Down‟s Syndrome in a derogatory way. We therefore concluded that this material clearly had the potential to cause offence, and went on to consider whether this was justified by the context.’

But they concluded that the rest of the routine ‘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.’

It also accepted that the late-night slot, Gervais’s existing reputation, and the on-air warning before the show meant that the audience would not have found the language entirely unexpected .

They concluded: ‘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’.

Mark Gale, of Mencap, has previously criticised Gervias over the use of the word, saying: ‘It's very disappointing. When people in the public eye use words of this type [it] can be offensive to people with a disability and their families.’

Here is the offending routine, originally from Ricky Gervais’s official YouTube channel, which bleeped out the word ‘fuck’ but not ‘mong’.

Published: 23 Jan 2012

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