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Regulators’ growing tentacles threaten international media

BBC World editors have been agonising over “when nudity is acceptable on the news?” Their problem arouse over a report last week from Swaziland about the king choosing a wife from a parade of women dressed in traditional costume which means their breasts were bare.

I saw it on the UK news and it was part of a nice piece by Allan Little on a country trying to modernise and hold on to its traditions at the same time.

The dilemma for Richard Porter, editor of BBC World, was that they broadcast on cable in the USA and have to abide by local regulations. Nipples have been a sensitive issue there since Janet Jackson’s “costume malfunction”.

He writes about the debate and the decision to go ahead and broadcast, despite doubts from colleagues and some American partners, in The Editors blog at BBC news.

I am glad Porter decided to be robust and broadcast. There is emerging a real danger that trying to meet the requirements of many different countries could emasculate the journalism.

Only a couple of weeks ago The New York Times barred computers with UK IP addresses from viewing a story about details emerging of the “liquid bomb plot”. They did it on legal advice that it breached British law on pre-trial information. I posted on this at the time.

Emily Bell, editor-in-chief of Guardian Unlimited wrote about regulation, law and location in the Editor’s Week column in last Saturday’s paper. She reached a rather grim conclusion:

The PCC [Press Complaints Commission] and Ofcom are both thinking about whether the original position that online regulation is a fool’s errand can hold, or whether it is better to move first before another regulator steals your lunch. It does, however, seem that the days of the internet as an unfettered frontier are drawing to a close.

If the PCC or Ofcom moved to regulate the web it would remain national regulation and do nothing to deal with the problems faced by editors at BBC World and the New York Times.

If the European Union tried to extend its regulatory reach it would still cover only half a continent. It would not resolve the question of nipples in America.

It is virtually impossible to imagine any international agreement on regulation and if there was one it would almost certainly be extremely restrictive.

In a world of international publication it looks as if journalists everywhere will have a fight on their hands. I just wish the answer was as simple as saying: “Publish and be damned!”

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