Senator Conroy (The Age/Andrew Meares)

Readers should note that this post contains language that may offend. Fortunately it’s not being followed by Play School today.

Aidan Wilson writes…

Minister for communications, Senator Stephen Conroy, caused a bit of a stir yesterday when he swore on the ABC’s live coverage of the National Press Club address. He was responding to a question about the sovereign risk associated with the National Broadband Network (or something like that; I’m a linguist, not an economist):

If a tax goes up, God, that is sovereign risk, but if a tax goes down, its fucking fantastic. Excuse me – that is fantastic.

The address was aired on ABC1 between 12:30 and 1:30 pm, and is followed by ABC’s afternoon lineup of children’s television shows beginning with Meerkat Manor (a show which I believe used to be on Channel 10 at 6pm, #justsayin’), so naturally, he has copped some criticism from various people about his lewd and uncalled-for depravity. Malcolm Turnbull for instance, took the opportunity to slam the speech as being ‘as sloppy as it was vulgar’.

Julian Burnside this morning wrote a blogpost detailing the history of swearing in public and on stage or screen, in which he notes that most obscenities start out as completely innocuous words before they become obscene, eventually culminating in their being ‘banned’ (as far as it’s possible to legislate against language use). He concludes:

Looked at solely as a lexical unit, fuck is a very good, sturdy, versatile and descriptive word.  If our social masters could reconcile themselves to the idea that sex is a legitimate part of human existence and is here to stay, it may be that fuck will eventually be accepted in polite use.

I agree. Given the general trajectory of obscene words in our language, there will surely be a time when it will be okay to say fuck on television before 9:30 (or whatever the guidelines state – I actually have no idea).

Finally, there’s a delicious irony in all this, which The Australian was very quick to point out:

Senator Conroy, who kept his job yesterday’s cabinet reshuffle, is the minister overseeing broadcasting standards.

Expecting politicians not to swear would be as futile as expecting them to answer direct question put to them. So to stop this sort of thing happen in future, I might suggest that the ABC move their daytime politics schedule to another channel, say, ABC2, or alternatively, move all children’s programming to ABC3.

Another solution, I suppose, would be for the ACT to recreate Ted Baillieu’s anti-swearing laws and issue Conroy with a fine.

In light of Stilgherrian’s suggestion that Conroy deliberately swore in order to distract the public from the cabinet reshuffle, I’m posting a video of the event:


I think Stilgherrian has a point; there’s no pause between fucken’ fantastic and ‘scuse me, although there is a definite change in pitch. I’m not a phonetician, but I’ve just asked one (thanks Debbie) and there’s arguably an intonational boudary between the two, and that doesn’t necessitate a pause. Also, the fucken’ is lower in intensity (volume, essentially) than the rest of the utterance, in fact by looking at the spectrogram, it appears as if fucken’ is not even voiced (apart from a bit on the second syllable).Here’s the spectrogram, sorry about the lack of annotations. Fucken’ is the patch without much darkness (indicating not very much glottal activity) right in the middle. The blue line is pitch and the yellow line is intensity. Click to embiggen.

but if a tax goes down that’s fucken’ fantastic ‘scuse me.

As to whether you can say with any authority from this if Conroy said it deliberately, well, you just can’t. There’s nothing to say that you have to pause after saying something wrong before realising it was an error and excusing it. Just because it was immediate doesn’t mean it wasn’t genuine.