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Beeb, British Museum face smut issues over saucy pot

One man, three boys, one cup

By Jane Fae Ozimek • In Law • At 13:32 GMT 25th May 2010

The BBC and the British Museum could be in a tight spot if the legal system puts two and two together over a Roman cup which also puts two and two together... in a naked, underage sort of way.

A sharp-eyed Reg reader (who may now need locking up) draws to our attention the BBC’s online publicity for a Radio 4 series entitled The History of the World in 100 Objects. Featured prominently on the page publicising this series is a picture of the Warren Cup, a luxurious silver cup believed to have been used at Roman dinner parties.

The cup has previously been the subject of some controversy, for its no-holds-barred depiction of homoeroticism: in the 1950s US Customs refused to allow it into the United States, while over the years several museums (including our own British Museum) refused to buy it on the grounds it was probably unexhibitable.

According to the Beeb’s description of this objet d’art: "One side shows two teenage boys making love, while the other shows a young man lowering himself onto the lap of his elder, bearded lover. A slave-boy peers in voyeuristically from behind a door."

The problem with this image lies in the recently commenced Cartoon Law – aka s. 62 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 – which makes it an offence to possess depictions of "the performance by a person of an act of intercourse or oral sex with or in the presence of a child".

Under UK law, reaffirmed in the Sexual Offences Act 2003, while the age of consent for sexual activity is 16, an individual remains a child until the age of 18.

According to an expert at the British Museum, which following a change of heart on this issue now also carries pictures of this image on its site: "The ages of the people depicted on the Warren Cup can be estimated from their clothing and hairstyle.”

They explained further that one of the youths depicted on the cup is aged 17 or 18, the other is "perhaps about 16". The boy watching the principals from a doorway is "perhaps 12/13".

The Cartoon Law does have one let-out – namely that the person in possession of a particular image had a "legitimate reason" for doing so. It is unclear, however, what might count as such a reason. In respect of other law in this area, opt-out clauses have been constructed to enable individuals such as police and network administrators to view images for the specific purpose of evaluating them for the purposes of law enforcement.

However, the courts have not been impressed in the past by high-profile defences of the sort claimed by rock guitarist Peter Townshend that he viewed child abuse images as part of "research" for a campaign to "counter damage done by all kinds of pornography on the internet".

We asked the Crown Prosecution Service if they could clarify the matter for us. A spokesman told us: “There is no list of legitimate reasons for possession of such images. Each case is different and must be considered on its own merits."

The Met Police declined to comment on the grounds that they have received no allegation of an offence being committed. ®

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