When is nudity acceptable on the news?
Ever since the infamous "nipplegate" incident involving Janet Jackson's costume malfunction, television channels in America have been especially sensitive to any bare flesh.
So Allan Little's piece from Swaziland on Friday (watch it here) saw a group of BBC World producers studying the US rule book very carefully... since we broadcast on American cable networks, and have to respect "local" laws.
Allan reported on the "Ceremony of the Reed" - where the King of Swaziland chooses a wife from a parade of women dressed in traditional costume. That is, they weren't wearing anything on top. There wasn't really any way of avoiding the issue - that's how they were dressed, and to have edited out any toplessness would have been bizarre.
But talking to colleagues in the US, it's pretty clear that American TV channels have become cautious to the extreme on any issues involving either nudity or swearing. One channel reportedly re-edited a cartoon because it showed a bare bottom.
So we referred to the Federal Communications Commission guidelines which govern broadcasts in the US. The relevant section - on "indecency" - says the following:
- Material is indecent if, in context, it depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium. In each case, the FCC must determine whether the material describes or depicts sexual or excretory organs or activities and, if so, whether the material is "patently offensive."
- In our assessment of whether material is "patently offensive," context is critical. The FCC looks at three primary factors when analysing broadcast material: (1) whether the description or depiction is explicit or graphic; (2) whether the material dwells on or repeats at length descriptions or depictions of sexual or excretory organs; and (3) whether the material appears to pander or is used to titillate or shock. No single factor is determinative. The FCC weighs and balances these factors because each case presents its own mix of these, and possibly other, factors.
Now quite clearly (to me at least), our piece from Swaziland could not possibly have breached the guidelines. Context is critical, the guidelines say, and our context was clear.
But not everyone in the newsroom agreed, and nor did some of partner channels in the US, who we work with very closely. So we had another think - and decided to broadcast anyway. Not to have done so would have made a nonsense of Allan's story... which raised important issues about a country trying to modernise and hang on to its traditions at the same time.
Thus far, nobody has complained.