The Memo: Why didn’t the mainstream media name Huw Edwards as the presenter at the centre of the BBC scandal?

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What’s in a name: Why didn’t the mainstream media name Huw Edwards as the presenter at the centre of the BBC scandal?

Erin Bradbury – 17 July 2023

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you couldn’t have missed the recent revelation in The Sun that an unnamed BBC presenter had allegedly paid a young person approximately £35,000 over three years for explicit images – a potentially serious criminal offence. With a significant media storm surrounding the case until Huw Edwards - a presenter for the BBC News at Ten - was identified, the question many found themselves asking was why couldn’t the presenter be named?

First things first, it is illegal to possess indecent images of someone under the age of eighteen, which is classified as a child in England and Wales. The Sun’s initial allegations contained the claim that the requests from Edwards for explicit images of the young person started when they were just 17, claims that the young person have themselves denied. Yet following the publication, the Metropolitan Police reported that the evidence handed to them gave no indication that a criminal offence had been committed, and claimed that it wouldn’t be taking further action. The BBC on the other hand vowed to continue its corporate investigation in response to the allegations.

But what legal issues were at play in the media storm surrounding the case? In short, it’s a combination of privacy and defamation concerns that prevent journalists from being able to name the presenter outright. Defamation is, in short, the act of ruining a reputation, something that a number of active BBC presenters claimed had happened to them when they were falsely identified as the presenter at the centre of the scandal on social media. This is only amplified in cases that attract this degree of attention on social media too. On TikTok alone, two of the most popular hashtags related to the allegations had been viewed around 6 million times, whilst the same hashtags on Twitter had been posted almost 45,000 times. It brings into question the extent to which social media users adhere to the same defamation rules that the mainstream media is governed by.

The libel risk (defamation in writing, specifically by writing something false) is clear to see. Until the media had absolute confirmation of Edward’s guilt, they ran the risk of a libel claim by publishing his name. What’s more, in 2022, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to privacy includes people under investigation by law enforcement until a formal charge has been brought. So, no matter what the degree of public fascination with the case, someone suspected of wrongdoing has the ‘reasonable expectation’ of privacy. Media guidelines suggest that only in circumstances of overriding public interest can confidentiality be revoked. So, the question posed to the media in deciding not to name was, was it a matter of public interest or simply a matter of an interested public?

Hence a rather interesting strand of debate arose about the use of parliamentary privilege to name the presenter, where the media could not. From 1689, parliamentarians have certain legal immunity that would allow an MP to name the presenter without fear of defamation. However, in this theoretical landscape, whether the privilege would extend to the reporting media itself is dubious. As such reporting would only be protected if it qualifies on the grounds of being fair, correct, published without malice and being a matter of public interest.

Ultimately, Edward’s privacy was waived on his behalf by his wife in the mainstream media upon release of a statement about the allegations. But up until then, regardless of whatever curiosity held, privacy and defamation laws protected the individual’s identity, and others. The case has of course raised a number of significant questions around the conduct of various organizations, but more important questions remain about the difficulty of enforcing privacy and defamation protections in the age of social media.