The Media Today

What just happened at the BBC?

July 17, 2023
12 October 2022, Great Britain, London: The station logo is emblazoned on the entrance to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The UK's public broadcaster, which was to achieve world fame for its quality as the British Broadcasting Corporation, was founded 100 years ago, on October 18, 2022. Photo by: Christoph Meyer/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Last weekend, The Sun, a right-wing British tabloid, splashed an explosive claim across its front page: “TOP BBC STAR IN SEX PICS PROBE.” The accompanying story alleged that a “well known” BBC anchor had paid a young person tens of thousands of dollars for “sordid images” since that person was seventeen—an act that would constitute a crime in Britain, where the age of consent around explicit photos (eighteen) is higher than it is for sex (sixteen)—and that the young person used the money to fund an addiction to crack cocaine. The story was based primarily on the account of the young person’s mother, who, The Sun said, did not ask for payment for her story (a relatively common practice at some British titles) but merely wanted the BBC anchor “to stop paying my child for sexual pictures and stop…funding my child’s drug habit.” The Sun did not name the anchor in question, an apparent consequence of strict British media laws, especially around privacy. As if to underscore the point, The Sun illustrated its story with a stock photo of a man standing in silhouette, his face hidden in shadow.

The story quickly detonated right across the British media landscape, not least at the BBC itself. Rival outlets started live blogs to track new developments and ran follow-up stories; one—in the Sunday Times, a paper that, like The Sun, is owned by Rupert Murdoch—quoted a prominent former prosecutor laying out the legal jeopardy that the anchor might face should The Sun’s story stand up, leading The Sun itself to splash the headline: “Top BBC star who ‘paid child for sex pictures’ could be charged by cops and face years in prison, expert says.” Meanwhile, speculation ramped up—both online and by old-fashioned word of mouth—as to who the anchor might be. Various BBC personalities felt forced to distance themselves from the allegations. After The Independent repeated The Sun’s claim in a Facebook post that linked to an article with a display image of Rylan Clark, an anchor on the entertainment side of the BBC, Clark asked them to edit the post, saying that “it suggests I’m the person in question and frankly the comments are disgusting.” (The Independent complied.) After an anonymous Twitter user linked a different anchor, Nicky Campbell, to The Sun’s story, Campbell reported them to the police.

The BBC, for its part, suspended the anchor, launched an internal probe, and contacted the police, which then took leadership of the inquiry. And the broadcaster faced questions—again based on The Sun’s reporting—as to what it knew, and when, about its anchor’s alleged conduct, with the family of the young person at the heart of the story claiming that they had tried to raise the alarm with the BBC only for the broadcaster to drag its feet. (The BBC said that this initial complaint did not involve allegations of criminality and that the family did not return phone calls from BBC investigators.) Britain’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, weighed in with an expression of concern, as did its justice minister, Alex Chalk, who said that “it may be that, in the fullness of time, there will need to be an investigation about how this allegation was handled.”

Then, late last Monday, came a big twist: a lawyer for the young person put out a statement denying that anything “inappropriate or unlawful” had ever occurred between them and the anchor, dismissing The Sun’s story as “rubbish,” and claiming that they had told the paper as much prior to publication, only for the story to run anyway—without including the denial. The Sun stood by the story as being based on the testimony of “two very concerned parents,” said that it had seen evidence “that supports their concerns,” and called on the BBC to investigate further. But increasingly, The Sun was now the news organization facing questions. Sources told Jim Waterson, a media reporter at The Guardian, of a “growing nervousness” inside the paper’s newsroom. Waterson also suggested that the paper was backing off any claims of criminality.

On Wednesday, police officials confirmed that they would not be pursuing any criminal case against the anchor. Around the same time, the anchor was publicly named as Huw Edwards. This was a very big deal: both because Edwards is, in many ways, the face of the BBC’s news output—when the queen died last year, it was Edwards who broke the news to the nation; the New York Times compared him to Walter Cronkite in stature—and because he seemed, to many observers, like an unlikely character to become embroiled in a sex scandal. (As he was named, clips resurfaced online of two old British satirical shows joking about such a notion, apparently due to its facial absurdity.) On Wednesday evening, Edwards’s wife, Vicky Flind, herself a prominent TV news producer, said, in a statement issued on Edwards’s behalf, that he had experienced a “serious” mental health episode (having already been treated for depression in recent years) and had been admitted to the hospital, where he would remain for “the foreseeable future.” In a statement of its own, The Sun claimed that it never alleged any criminal wrongdoing on Edwards’s part, and said that it would not be publishing any further stories on the matter.

If this might have seemed to be the end of the matter, however, it was not. The Sun also said that it had handed a dossier to the BBC concerning allegations beyond the one that it initially printed. Indeed, by this point, various outlets had reported other claims against Edwards—not least the BBC itself, which quoted a second young person as saying that Edwards sent them threatening messages on a dating app after they hinted that they might name Edwards publicly. Then, in the hours after Edwards was named, Newsnight, a top BBC show, reported that he sent “inappropriate” and “suggestive” messages to junior BBC staffers. According to Deadline’s Jake Kanter, a Newsnight host was investigating Edwards even before The Sun’s initial story went to print—though, per Kanter, there was “some dispute” as to how far along she’d gotten. Kanter also reported that some BBC staffers felt uncomfortable talking to colleagues about whether Edwards had made them uncomfortable, leading bosses to talk with Newsnight staff.

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In many ways, the internal debate over the appropriateness of the BBC’s coverage of itself mirrored an external debate over the same thing. Some media reporters—including CNN’s Oliver Darcy, who knows a thing or two about reporting on turmoil inside his own workplace—praised the BBC news division for holding itself to the same rigorous standards it would apply to anyone else. (Having to cover the story was “weird,” one BBC journalist told Waterson, “but it’s being treated like any other story.”) Many observers, however, disagreed. Some objected to the volume and tenor of the BBC’s coverage essentially on cultural grounds, arguing that if reporters had heard complaints about a colleague, their first duty should be to inform HR. A louder strain of criticism was more peculiar to the BBC and its increasingly fraught place in British political life, with no few critics accusing the broadcaster of self-flagellating as part of (yet another) contorted effort to appease right-wing rivals that would be happy to see it go up in smoke. Claire Enders, a media analyst, told the New York Times that the BBC had been “drawn into the feeding frenzy. It got drawn into a trap set by The Sun.”

Thus was Edwards pulled into a messy media debate much bigger than himself. And it was far from the only one. In addition to raising questions as to the BBC’s journalistic standards and whether reporters can ever be expected to investigate colleagues with due independence, the story also became one of supposed tabloid sloppiness/malfeasance (delete as appropriate) and what constitutes the “public interest,” with observers variously characterizing Edwards’s alleged conduct as rightly private—at least as soon as any suggestion of criminality disappeared—and potentially still troubling, even if it wasn’t criminal. In a sense, such questions are universal. But they resonate especially strongly for the British press and the laws by which it must abide.

The Edwards story is still sufficiently murky that it’s hard to draw firm lessons at this point: in the past, I, too, have been critical of the BBC for bowing too readily to confected right-wing outrage campaigns, and its coverage of the Edwards story was, at times, so wall-to-wall as to feel disproportionate—but the charge that it was drawn into a feeding frenzy is tricky to evaluate without knowing more details of the range of allegations against Edwards. A couple of conclusions do already present themselves. First, The Sun still has sharp questions to answer about its original story—principally, whether, as is currently alleged to be the case, it ran a story about a potentially vulnerable young person not only without that person’s consent, but without incorporating their denial of the central claims. The paper should also be held to account for dangling clear implications of criminality, then cynically claiming that it never did so.

Second, the whole affair points to the clear limitations in British privacy laws—and the broader notion that news organizations should be subject to such laws—which have become more restrictive in recent years following a series of court rulings (not least against the BBC, over its invasive and sensationalized coverage of a police raid on the singer Cliff Richard’s home). One could make the case that privacy law worked as intended in Edwards’s case, at least initially: it was, seemingly, a key reason that Edwards’s name was kept out of a story that didn’t ultimately stand up. But one could also make the case that aspects of the story—or at least what followed it, in the form of Edwards’s suspension and the police probe—were themselves a matter of public interest. More to the point, Edwards was widely named online before his wife confirmed his identity—a worst-of-all-worlds scenario in which any expectation of privacy became untenable, but not before innocent colleagues had been dragged across the buzzsaw of malicious rumor. As Richard Sambrook, a former director of BBC News, put it, “the UK remains deeply confused about how to balance the right to privacy and the public interest and free speech.” That confusion helps no one. And it reverberates far beyond the relatively borderline case of Edwards.

His case in isolation, however, remains just that: confusing. As various observers, including the editorial board of The Guardian, have pointed out, no one has come out of it particularly well, at least at this point. The BBC and The Sun may both have screwed up, in different ways. Edwards may have a strong case for invasion of privacy, one with the power to force a seismic, phone-hacking-sized reckoning upon the Murdoch press and the wider press—or he may not. Either way, he might never return to the prominent perch he once held. (The confounding details continue to stack up: per Waterson, Andy Coulson—a former Murdoch editor who was jailed as a result of the phone-hacking scandal—is now advising Edwards’s family on crisis comms.)

What’s certain is that the story is not done yet, despite entering a lull since Edwards was named. The BBC is still investigating; the parents of the young person from the original Sun story were reportedly offered big money to talk to a Murdoch TV station, though it’s unclear when, or if, that program will air. We’ve also yet to hear from Edwards himself; his wife said that he will speak out, but only when he is well enough to do so. Last week, his Twitter account did like a handful of tweets, one of which suggested that he might launch “the mother of all libel actions.” Privacy law, of course, is not the only thing British journalists have to worry about.

Other notable stories:

  • For CJR, Bob Norman dug into the “strange, aggressive press strategy” of Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor whose campaign for the Republican presidential nomination has recently run into a buzzsaw of negative media coverage; the Washington Post reported over the weekend, for instance, that Murdoch, who was once “excited” about DeSantis’s candidacy, has grown disillusioned with him, and will, in the words of one confidant, “come back to Trump if he thinks Trump can win.” The Wall Street Journal reported recently that DeSantis might ramp up his engagement with mainstream media outlets—which he has thus far shunned—as he tries to turn things around. Yesterday, CNN announced that Jake Tapper will interview DeSantis, airing tomorrow.
  • The Times’ move, early last week, to ax its sports desk in favor of further integrating The Athletic, the sports site that it acquired last year, into its operations continues to reverberate. Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein reports that “a routine all-company meeting” at the paper “turned into a contentious grilling” late last week, with staffers expressing concerns about the way the change was communicated to them, The Athletic’s editorial policies, and the decision to “subcontract” a tranche of the paper’s coverage to a different arm of the company that is not yet unionized. According to Semafor, the paper’s union is planning a lunchtime walkout sometime this week in protest of the decision.  
  • Recently, Libor Jany and Brittny Mejia, two reporters at the LA Times, visited the home of a local police officer before naming her in a story about a botched operation that blew up a residential block in 2021. The reporters requested comment and left the property when asked, but local police officials nonetheless responded with fury; the LA police chief called the LA Times to complain, while a police union accused the reporters of “stalking” and sent photos of them to its membership. Kevin Rector has more on the incident, and the troubling message that it sends about the LAPD’s attitude to the press.
  • After a suspect was recently arrested in the murders of several women in the Gilgo Beach area of Long Island over a decade ago, Robert Kolker—the author of Lost Girls, a book about the case—reflected, for the Times, on how the media initially reduced the victims to their work as prostitutes, and how that portrayal seems now to have changed. The victims, he writes, “were only ‘lost’ insofar as we—the police, the media, the social safety net—elected to lose them, by deciding they were worth discarding.”
  • And—days after enrapturing the internet with a story about a “foul bout of screaming and polemic farting” at a press dinner held to boost the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.—the New York Post reported that, at the same event, Kennedy floated the theory that COVID-19 was biologically engineered to spare Jewish and Chinese people. Kennedy claimed that the dinner was off the record, but the Post disputed this.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.