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Acceptable nudity?

Richard Porter | 12:40 UK time, Wednesday, 13 September 2006

When is nudity acceptable on the news?

BBC World logoEver 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.

An image from Allan Little's reportAllan 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.


America seems to have begun the rise of the New Puritanism. It's almost like they need to justify their insistence on imposing their brand of "democracy" on other countries by making the homeland more pure.

It probably won't be too long before the legs of tables are covered in order to maintain the pure mind.

I only hope this insanity doesn't make its way over here.

  • 2.
  • At 02:05 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • Todd wrote:

Hello Mr. Porter,

I am a proud United States citizen and must apologize for the up-tight guidelines you were forced to wade through while considering a decent story such as this one. The broadcast was a good one, well organized and thought provoking. I find our own regulations representative of the right-wing inability to consider sex in anyway a good thing. The United States as a whole is far too pre-occupied with sex and eliminating it unless it meets certain criteria (sexual encounter between a man and a woman behind closed doors (bedroom doors only – their own bedroom doors and only after marriage)). The marriage part brings up a whole host of ignorance and hatred factors, so I feel compelled to ask you and your country to please forgive the United States’ laughable stance on such ridiculous issues like showing a breast on television when there are far more important issues in the world. Issues such as the War on Terror, The War in Iraq, Iran’s refusal to even seem reasonable, China and the many issues that threaten the entire world, world hunger and all other humanitarian issues. Please keep in mind that our country is just a prudish child compared to the United Kingdom and as such we will be irrational as you experienced with this issue. We hope to rid ourselves of our petulant child during our next elections and beg your forgiveness until then.

Yours truly,

Todd M. Dobson

  • 3.
  • At 02:13 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • Thane wrote:

This is why US thought drives me nuts and why I despise so many of my fellow citizens here. I work for a company that rents & sells theatrical lighting equipment. Some of our highest end clients are churches. The people with whom I've made contact (the pastors buying the flashy gear) often don't really care about the religion as much as they do their ten-million dollar house payment. And so they flash their lights and preach about Jackson flashing her nipple. The flocks fall into it and pour more money into the coffers. Which is _really_ more despicable?

  • 4.
  • At 02:40 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • Gary Brown wrote:

Either your editors and lawyers are misinformed, or you're misinforming us for effect. The FCC regulations govern what they say they govern: *broadcasts* over the public air-waves, available to all without subscription or TV/Radio decoders. If the various BBC programs were available only on subscription cable, you could show whatever body parts you like, and eff-and-blind too (I guess you've all seen The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire....). But some BBC output in the US is broadcast on local Public Television Stations, and is then subject to FCC rules for that public display. Naturally, even cable stations may choose, on commercial grounds, to restrict the nature of their output - but that's nothing to do with the government or the law. The curious thing about US TV is that, whilst there is more cultural unease about showing naked flesh, the sheer number of available subscription channels means that far more breasts are available for viewing here, at any given hour of the day, than in the UK, where you have to wait until the kids have gone to bed!

  • 5.
  • At 02:43 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • P Brown wrote:

Dear Richard,
Why do the US networks worry about the most natural bodily functions or appearance, when at the same time they seem to encourage graphic scenes of mindless violence?
In my gym showing on one of four big screen TVs every morning is a wrestling show.What I see is truly mindless violence and when women are involved, it borders on being pornographic.
Violence or sex?
I know which I would choose as the "healthy option"!

  • 6.
  • At 03:05 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • David Phillips wrote:

I saw the piece, which I considered very good if a little saddening, and the only possibly offensive depiction was that some of the girls appeared to be of mid-to-lower teenage years. Is this correct, and would it have breached any laws if so?

  • 7.
  • At 03:14 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • PM wrote:

To the previous posters:

The potentially controversial issue in this article is neither sex nor violence it is partial nudity. Toplessness is commonplace on most French beaches and it is nothing to do with sex. Total mixed nudity is commonplace in German and Scandinavian saunas and it is nothing to do with sex. Repeat after me, “nudity and sex are NOT the same thing”.

  • 8.
  • At 03:33 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • Keith wrote:

American magazines and television programs e.g. National Geographic and the Discovery Channel have long been able to show "indigenous nudity" without hassle. This has been true for decades.

Readers can draw their own conclusions from this about race relations, puritanism, and cultural awareness in the United States.

  • 9.
  • At 03:34 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • Stuart Van Onselen wrote:

Despite the serious setbacks in America of late, I am nevertheless of the opinion that, overall, Western culture has been and will continue to become more permissive with time.

Thus it stands to reason that in 100 years, if some future archivist comes across this column, he will consider the whole question to be so ridiculous as to be almost unbelievable. Much the same way as we today laugh at the Victorians and their hypocritical "morality".

At least, I jolly well hope so!

(BTW, it is good to know that the British only worry about it when they have to broadcast it in the US, which I take it means that you don't have nearly the same level of sexual hang-ups as the Americans.)

  • 10.
  • At 04:35 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • Geoffrey Roberts wrote:

I suspect Todd was being slightly-less-than-serious.

The problem with news is: when you do a piece on anything other than war, famine, murder, rape, kidnap, natural diasters etc people state that you should be focusing on "real" news rather than this quasi-pseudo-news; such as foreign kings selecting a new wife.
But it is news and how boring and irrelevant news broadcasting would be if it only focused on negative news items.

The United States is a nation of profound contradictions - mindless violence, legalised gambling in every state (so long as its on a Native Reservation, except a few such as Nevada - which even legalises prostitution) and at the same time they are extraditing Brits over perceived breaches of gambling laws, fretting over a few nipples on display (despite producing more porn moves and sex mags than the rest of the world).

BBC should not censor itself to pander to US censorship. news should not be censored - that is the first step to Dictatorship.
News is always relevant.

  • 11.
  • At 04:40 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • ronald hudson wrote:

Any editing in this case what have completly undermined the issues presented in this news story. But I have noticed that you have taken to bleeping out expletive words in some comedy shows on BBC America. This ruins the flow and spontaneity of these shows. We are adults and should be able to handle this

  • 12.
  • At 04:43 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • C. Richard wrote:

Dear Mr. Porter,

I see that another of my fellow countrymen from the USA has posted a comment. Unlike him, however, any pride I once felt has long since given way to embarrassment. No doubt, so much controversy over female breasts is laughable to the rest of the world, but when your government is the one enforcing puritanical law, one can only shake their head in dismay. In truth, bare breasted women are the least of what is omitted from our major network’s reporting… which is, no doubt, why you find us Yanks coming to the BBC to get our world news.

C. Richard

  • 13.
  • At 04:52 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • Paul Beckitt wrote:

To anyone with a modicum of commonsense, this isn't even an issue. Janet Jackson's nipple slip wasn't even an issue.

While American journalists might have to put up with this nonsense, British journalists shouldn't have to. It's sad that this was even discussed at all.

In what way are breasts "sexual or excretory organs"? As I recall from biology lessons, they are classified as "secondary sexual characteristics", which might cause a hot flush to the US censors, but beards come under the same heading.

Maybe this is why Saddam and Osama are in such disfavour.

  • 15.
  • At 05:17 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • Anna wrote:

America may object and moralise about a bit of bare flesh shown on national TV of a popular rock star.
And now we have to endure more puritanism....oh dear.
It's a pity they don't object more to the frying of flesh in the use of the electric chair, or the killing of flesh in Iraq, or the exporting of pornographic flesh to the rest of the world in order to uphold their so called decency standards.
It is pathetic!
What can they possibly teach me, or the rest of the world about decency?

Anna, London.

  • 16.
  • At 05:35 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • Elizabeth Welsh wrote:

As an American citizen/resident, the most frustrating thing about stories such as this is the feeling that decisions are being made by a vocal, reactionary minority rather than the reasonable (if lazy) majority. And then the majority gets judged by the actions of the minority. Because extreme polarization makes better television than rational discourse, it's impossible to have any kind of productive discussion about what we really want to see. Unfortunately I think most people are tuning out the yelling rather than asking for something better.

I do agree with P Brown's comment that sex is healthier than violence, and I think the contrast between the quasi-pornographic women displayed on wrestling shows and the Swazi women in their traditional dress raises another important point: that a woman need not be bare-breasted in order to be sexually objectified. But acknowledging this precludes the kind of conversation about "values" (and the conflict between declaimed vs. demonstrated values) that most people are uncomfortable having. The FCC among other bodies of oversight makes a lot of noise about protecting children, but I'd like to ask what they'd rather invite into their family dialogues: insight into other cultures, or scantily-clad women prancing around violent men?

  • 17.
  • At 05:36 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • Justin Mann wrote:

Just wait until the next election, we'll have a group who commision the FCC who are not just plain stupid...

  • 18.
  • At 05:42 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • Chris wrote:

Just one look at MTV would have allayed any fears that this news story would breach any deceny guidelines.

  • 19.
  • At 06:33 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • John smith wrote:

The lack of complaints could be - indeed is very likely to be - because the BBC is primarily watched by people who have become jaded with American broadcasting in general. The BBC news service is radically different from any United States news outlet, and the BBC service in general is almost a total polar opposite of American domestic channels. It follows that those who like the rigid and formulaic US style will watch US channels and those who like the more dynamic and fluidic BBC style will watch the BBC. Who, then, could possibly be both watching the BBC in America and be of a mind to complain?

  • 20.
  • At 08:22 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • J B-Jones wrote:

I think it is pathetic that you wasted any time having such an unnecessary conversation. If you are so unsure about reporting truth and facts, then you are entirely unfit for the task.
Listen, if the main provider of hard core porn in the world can't cope with a news report containing bare breasts, then it really is not your problem is it.

  • 21.
  • At 08:52 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • David wrote:

Nipplegate? NippleGATE??
My children wern't born when this antiquated suffix came into existence to beg grandeur for scandles. Now I have grandchildren old enough to wonder what illegitimate world they are being barred from. Watergate was an A1 topline scandal and it was not incomprhensible that the iran/contras affair should seek importance by calling itself Irangate a decade later, but janet jacksons nipple???

  • 22.
  • At 09:39 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • Jim wrote:

Aloha, I am happy that our FCC boggles your mind as much as it does mine! Living in Hawaii, you would think that an uncovered breast would lead to heroin addiction! As if the tiny bikini tops are really leaving anything to the imagination! I appreciate the British media and wish that we could be as open as you.

  • 23.
  • At 10:15 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • J.McDowall, NY wrote:

"Nudity does not equal sex" hits the nail squarely on the head and this is a concept beyond US culture right now.

What was more disturbing about the JJ/Nipplegate incident was that the whole NFL final show is/was about football (a violent and macho sport); cheer-leaders (budding Lolitas to service the players); beer (alcohol); sexual innuendo/bravado (the lyrics and actions of JJ and her singing partner) were pretty disgusting really.

The univited presence of a mere nipple was just the cherry on the cake!

  • 24.
  • At 10:19 PM on 13 Sep 2006,
  • C. Gibson wrote:

I am surprised in reading this that no one even tries to defend the other point of view.

Firstly I don't think anyone who could be taken seriously would object to the Swaziland piece. National Geographic laid the groundwork for this long before ago.

Secondly, It seems to me that a lot of people are assuming that it is a puritanical stance as opposed to being completly fed up with the dreck that the U.S. entertainment industry insists on pushing out.

FOr some bizarre reason, this industry has taken up the Dada notion that shocking scenes of violence and/or sex are art. Possibly it is because America is extra sensitive about nudity and it's relation to sex. (Whatever that is.) So the uncreative artists resort to shock and awe tactics.

The question America should be asking itself is not why are the puritanical right changing what can be shown on the public airwaves, but why can't Janet Jackson (and too many others) entertain us without stripping? She is a very successful artist with many many fans. How come she, as a profesional artist, does not understand that the people she set out to entertain, did not want to see her naked? Why is there this fundamental and apparently chronic disconnect between American artists and the people who eventually consume and support this art?

Whay is what America wants to watch, not on American TV. (Ok, this is where we break into a song parady of Why can't the English learn to speak from My Fair Lady.)

In my recent book, "The Decency Wars," I describe the origins of the FCC's jurisdiction over decency. When the Federal Radio Commission (the FCC's predecessor) was formed in 1927, the argument was made by political progressives that the airwaves, as a public resource, should be used for positive and uplifting purposes, and that it was the responsibility of the government to make sure the common resource was used appropriately. (A similar argument led to the establishment of the long-standing Fairness Doctrine, which was not abandoned until the Reagan Administration).

As the recent flaps over ABC's "9/11" and PBS's upcoming World War II documentary demonstrate, social conservatives have been effective in using the tools of government, including bureaucratic pressure, to impose their particular moral agenda. The push to have the FCC crackdown on indecency, however, is in direct contradiction to traditional conservative values of limited government and individual responsibility. While the campaign for government-imposed indecency may have some limited success, it is ultimately unwinnable. No further evidence is needed than the fact that the clip over which the BBC debated so strenuously debated was available at the click of a button over the Internet directly to my home. What the conservatives take away, YouTube giveth.

In my final chapter, I offer a number of suggestions for combating the efforts of some groups to use government to limit access to non-obscene materials. Not least among them is the simplest suggestion: strip the FCC of its indecency jurisdiction altogether. It is an archaic responsibility, one that is being rapidly overtaken by technology. Individual households should be responsible for what they choose to watch.

  • 26.
  • At 02:44 AM on 14 Sep 2006,
  • Liz wrote:

Breasts were primarily designed for breast-feeding! - a natural, healthy and entirely non-sexual activity. As Tim rightly points out, their sexual attributes are, relatively-speaking, insignificant.

You said that the story "raised important issues about a country trying to modernise and hang on to its traditions at the same time".

Does this refer to Swaziland or America?!

  • 28.
  • At 05:46 AM on 14 Sep 2006,
  • Amitabh Thakur wrote:

What Mr. Porter says looks like the only correct assessment and understanding of the Indecency rules as followed in USA. The word "context" says in so many words that any nudity to be termed as sexually indecent needs to have such a context. In other words, it shall be deliberately titilating and not contextually neccessary.
In the given case, when a horde of topless women are paraded before the King for making a choice, showing them in a routine manner cannot be called obscenity. But, one thing that must be kept in mind is that there shall not be any deliberate attempt to show the topless parts of the women incessantly with the sole purpose of making alluring and exciting visuals.
Thus, the rules as prescribed in USA, donot stop any news from getting broadcast just because of some nude scenes but it does stop the broadcaster from using it as a flimsy pretext of showing nudity in an abscene manner.
Amitabh Thakur

  • 29.
  • At 09:03 AM on 14 Sep 2006,
  • Jenny wrote:

Would the item have made it to your shortlist if it hadn't shown bare-breasted females? Or was it that some were under-age (by the UN Convention on Rights of the Child and the UN Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, both of which fully apply both in the UK and Swaziland, although not in the US)? Would it have been there is they had been white?

I'm not against women's bodies being appreciated (heck, I love mine being, in the right context), but twisted logic and hypocrisy (which, to be honest, National Geographic magazine having long being the "serious" place for American males ot see bare breasts always was) leads people in dangerous directions.

Um, and no, female breasts aren't excretory, they are reproductive. but then the whole human body is, male and female, in those who are fertile.

The BBC has always prided itself on dynamic quality broadcasting with the right balance. The American channels on the other hand are more rigid and perhaps more conservative with emphasis on religion and conservative Republican values. Obviously in this day and age, hypocrisy should not be tolerated; adults should be able to decide for themselves what is suitable for viewing. Perhaps after a certain time in the evening, say 10.30pm adult programmes could be shown as long as they are not downright ponographic.

  • 31.
  • At 12:52 PM on 14 Sep 2006,
  • Peter wrote:

I wonder how many of those criticising the US for these laws thing we shouldn't criticise Islamic nations for having far stricter regulations?

  • 32.
  • At 10:36 PM on 14 Sep 2006,
  • Steve Robey wrote:

Social cultures have different ideas about nudity. If the media are to be allowed to present the world as it is, then these ideas must be respected. If it is culturally acceptable for persons to be topless or naked in rituals, then so be it.

If seeing people naked or topless is supposed to 'deprave or corrupt',then how is it that gynaecologists do not figure in the statistics as prominent sex offenders.

Reading the FCC guidelines is pointless. They will be adhered to or not solely in accord with how loudly the lunatic fringe complains. You can in fact construct a graph of cause and effect, awarding points towards censorship as the complaints multiply.

It's complicated some by the necessity of giving extra points if the self-righteous whiners are the so-called American Family Association or the so-called Parents Television Council, etc.

And extra bonus points if the complainer was a major contributor to the federal Republican Party or any of its henchmen.

Currently, "rule of law" in the USA's federal administration means "I make the rule and to hell with the law." The FCC is no exception.

  • 34.
  • At 11:20 AM on 15 Sep 2006,
  • J Arnold wrote:

Dear Richard,
I think the FCC are a bunch of hypocrits. I believe their is still a U.S. TV News program on one of the Sky channels called Naked News, & as the title suggests the News, & the weathers is broadcast by presenters in 100% full frontal nudity, with nothing to cover their modesty. Now this is an American show which has been broadcast I believe for a few years. Surely it can't have escaped their attention a program with a Title called Naked News that the presenters would NOT be Naked or feature any kind of Nudity! I'm not sure when it is shown or if it is still shown in the USA but it IS on in Europe/UK around 10PM/11PM BST.
Also when in 1984 there were news reports on people starving Etheopia, were these news articles editied for content as I can remember seeing young starving children naked on the BBC 6 O'Clock News. I know the US only know of 2 or 3 other countries outside of their own country & think the US covers 90% of the world, but some of them need to wake up & come out of their caves, and get with the times!

  • 35.
  • At 11:57 AM on 15 Sep 2006,
  • Bryan wrote:

Mr. Porter,

I first heard Allan Little's piece broadcast on the World Service so I naturally couldn't make any judgement on the bare breast issue. But I did notice that at least two snippets from the radio broadcast were absent from the TV version. The first was Little's mention of the fact that the king's minders had asked him not to question the king about his wives and the second, and far more important, was the perfectly pertinent question that Little put to the king re the horrific AIDS statistics in the kingdom. He asked him if he didn't think that the practice of polygamy contributed to the rate of AIDS in Swaziland. The king, evidently in concert with Thabo Mbeki, didn't think so.

Point is, why were these important and revealing factors not present in the TV broadcast? Were they swept out by a PC broom? And does the BBC feel no sense of failing in its duty to inform the public?

  • 36.
  • At 02:53 PM on 15 Sep 2006,
  • Steve Mac wrote:

I watch Western women wear the headscarf when reporting from Muslim countries, out of respect for their culture, with no complaint or protest. Why is it such a problem to show the same respect for US customs while reporting inside the USA?

I hadn't realised how much United States sensibilities influenced BBC World.

Time for a split, methinks. How about BBC American World and BBC Rest Of The World.

If their President wants isolationism and a return to pre-Darwinian thinking, then that is what he must have. Other people, other countries, wish for different things.

  • 38.
  • At 06:01 PM on 16 Sep 2006,
  • Eric wrote:

True, nudity does not equate with sex. But - what if it did?
If murder and maiming can be shown on TV, why not good, wholesome sex?

  • 39.
  • At 10:06 PM on 16 Sep 2006,
  • Paul D wrote:

I count myself as a reasonably normal person. In my early days, the breast was a source of nourishment, later of comfort. Nowadays, the harmless breast has taken on a new status. It reminds me that I should be focusing on higher things. About 18 inches higher.

  • 40.
  • At 10:36 PM on 17 Sep 2006,
  • Bob wrote:

The issue for the FCC and broadcast stations is the fear of fines and the excessive punative damages. Also at issue is the relative vagueness and inconsistency of the rulings.

Nipplegate did bring this to being. I remember in the 90s NYPD Blue had an exposed bare butt during a sex scene and to my knowledge, no FCC fines. But as has been mentioned, the FCC does not have any authority over cable stations.


  • 41.
  • At 01:18 PM on 18 Sep 2006,
  • chris wrote:

I think Steve Mac has a very valid point "Why is it such a problem to show the same respect for US customs whilst reporting in th USA?"

The USA is a democracy. The majority have voted for the current "Conservative" government. The FCC rules reflect the consensus view. Lets respect that.

I personally prefer the more liberal attitude we have here in the UK.


  • 42.
  • At 03:16 PM on 18 Sep 2006,
  • Tangent Wings wrote:


Reluctantly I have to agree with you. It's their country. If they feel happy with the sort of morality, hypocrisy and a degre of intellectual rigour that Cotton Mather would've thought simplistic, that's down to them.

But just as with their foreign policy, the output of their entertainment industry and their pollution - couldn't they please keep it to themselves?

  • 43.
  • At 01:12 PM on 19 Sep 2006,
  • Tim W wrote:

It's a real shame that the prudery of the world is matched with a rise in cheap smut - don't get me wrong - think nudity is fine, i have no problem with bare bodies if it's tastefully done - in fact i love them, but when you look at The TV nowadays its a plethora of strange double standards.
Janet Jacksons ugly nipple trick causes havoc, but it is almost impossible to avoid programs happily showing topless plasticised women (reminding me of Kenny Everett, bless him) often waving their bottoms in the air in a most unappetising and vaguely ludicrous fashion.
People complain about possible nudity on the news, but we advertise dozens of programmes under 'naked this, or nude that, porn the other or the ??? they tried to ban (incidentally they didn't "try", they succeeded). In each case there is either no nudity, or it is tastelessly done AND censored. Make up your minds - if you want to show it show it, if not then shifting blocks of censor pixels are not interesting to watch.

  • 44.
  • At 03:56 PM on 04 Oct 2006,
  • Joe in Libya wrote:

Yes, by all means show the nipples - I don't even know why it is a discussion. However, have I spotted some BBC-hypocrisy here?

Did I not see you lot blur out the penis on a classical-style male sculpture during the World of Art program a few weeks ago? It's made of stone for crying out loud! It was so strange that I am now doubting that it actually occured. Did anybody else see this?

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