Rotten outburst sends ITV into tizzy

11.15am: Twenty-eight years ago a four-letter outburst from Sex Pistol John Lydon on primetime TV caused a national scandal, but last night he called an audience of up to 12 million people 'fucking cunts' and only 98 complained. By Owen Gibson.

Twenty-eight years ago a four-letter outburst from Sex Pistol John Lydon on primetime television was enough to cause a national scandal, but last night he called an audience of up to 12 million people "fucking cunts" and merited only 98 complaints.

The singer's outburst came during ITV's smash hit I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!'s live eviction programme, when Lydon was told by presenters Ant and Dec that he hadn't been voted off the show by the viewing public.

"Oh, fucking cunts," he exclaimed, adding that he had hoped to be voted off so he could "go trucking in the country". ITV today apologised for Lydon's outburst and said it was looking into ways of delaying the broadcast of the daily live eviction show to edit out any offensive language.

Ant and Dec rushed to say sorry, albeit in their trademark ironic style, Ant saying: "Oh, come on John" and Dec adding: "We have to apologise. We're incredibly sorry about that but it is a live show".

ITV has been hostage to fortune ever since it decided that the final section of the show, in which the celebrities learn who is going to be evicted, goes out live. The rest of the show and the continuous coverage on ITV2 is recorded or goes out with a 15-minute "libel delay".

ITV bosses this evening issued another apology and said they were now introducing a delay to the final section which would allow them bleep any potentially offence words.

Johnny Lydon, who made his name by walking down King's Road in Chelsea spitting at people, also said he was sorry.

This morning ITV bosses today had received only around 55 complaints after the show was aired last night but throughout the day there were another 25 complaints. New media regulator Ofcom had received 18 complaints taking the total tally to 98.

This is still considered a relatively low number for such a popular programme, given the fact the c-word tops a broadcasting watchdog's league of most offensive words.

The programme, which has been an instant hit for ITV and is dominating the newspapers, was watched by an average of 10.2 million viewers last night and peaked at 12 million at around 10pm when the incident happened.

For a show regularly attracting around 11m viewers, the number of complaints was relatively small. The most complained about television programme of last year was an episode of BBC1's Spooks, which Muslim groups claimed incited a racial attack on a mosque and attracted almost 1,000 complaints.

The 1995 TV screening of Martin Scorsese's controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ still holds the overall record with 1,554 complaints.

Nevertheless, the ITV director of programmes, Nigel Pickard, is hurriedly contacting the production team in Australia to see whether a 15-minute delay can be applied to the eviction segment of the show as it is to the "live" coverage shown on ITV2.

By the end of the day, ITV had issued a statement apologising again for Lydon's outburst and saying that the singer himself was "extremely sorry and expresses regret at having used such launguage".

"We've no wish to offend viewers or mar their enjoyment. We're therefore building a very short time delay into transmission to enable us to bleep unacceptable language," it added.

An ITV spokeswoman apologised for any offence but pointed out the show was prefaced by a warning about strong language and that the offending words were broadcast after 10pm. Lydon, one of the favourites to win, has already been warned by producers about his swearing.

Callers to a BBC Radio 5 Live discussion about bad language sympathised with ITV. One woman said: "My nine-year-old daughter begged me to stay up and watch it, but I didn't let her because I expected bad language. I mean for goodness sake, why else have they got Johnny Rotten on?"

In 1976 Lydon's Sex Pistols caused a national scandal when teatime presenter Bill Grundy asked him to "say something outrageous" and he said the word"shit" twice.

Goaded further by Grundy, guitarist Steve Jones then called the presenter a "fucking rotter", causing questions to be asked in the Commons and a tabloid frenzy led by the Daily Mirror's famous "The Filth and the Fury" front page headline.

But changing attitudes to swearing on television and radio have seen the public become more accepting of previously taboo swear words.

While research by television watchdogs has consistently shown that the number of swear words broadcast both before and after the 9pm watershed has continued to rise, the number of complaints about bad language has fallen.

While TV watchdogs upheld a complaint against daytime show This Morning when model Caprice Bourret used the word "cunt" while discussing her role in stage play The Vagina Monologues, it was based on only two complaints from the viewing public.

And even when the word was read out on BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime as part of a serialisation of Ian McEwan's Atonement, it attracted only a few complaints despite loud protests from viewing standards body MediaWatch.

However, research last year from the Broadcasting Standards Commission showed that while people were more relaxed about swearing, many remained concerned about the content of shows, particularly, soap operas before the watershed.

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Owen Gibson

The GuardianTramp

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