The BBC, one of the world’s most trusted news brands, has devoted much of its resources this week to covering the story of whether one of its top presenters was involved in the sexual exploitation of a child.
Statements are conflicting. Accusations are uncorroborated. And reputations hang in the balance.
But the BBC has not answered the question foremost on the minds of many people consumed by the exhaustive coverage — precisely who is the eminent personality who now stands accused?
“Everyone in this building knows who it is,” said BBC radio host Sarah Montague as she pressed BBC Director General Tim Davie on Tuesday to publicly reveal the name.
Davie, who is facing intense scrutiny for the broadcaster’s initial response to a complaint from the then-teen’s family, declined to do so, citing a difficult balance between “duty of care, privacy and public interest.”
Top BBC hosts proclaim innocence online
That hasn’t stopped rampant speculation on social media — and even prompted several of the BBC’s top on-air hosts to use their social media accounts to proclaim their innocence.
Radio 5 host Nicky Campbell told his listeners he had contacted police after being falsely accused on social media of being the perpetrator.
Very few facts of the complicated case are agreed upon.
On July 7, the Sun Newspaper published allegations that the unnamed BBC presenter paid a then 17-year-old up to £35,000 for sex images beginning in 2020.
It’s unclear, based on the limited information available, whether the young person had turned 18 when any images were taken.
The parents of the teen told the newspaper that their child then used the money to purchase hard drugs. The Sun also claimed the parents complained to the BBC in May of this year, but that no action was taken by the broadcaster.
Doubt cast on allegations, second claim made
Subsequent disclosures, however, have cast doubt on some of the allegations made in The Sun.
On Monday, the BBC quoted from a letter it said it received from the alleged victim’s lawyer, claiming the sexual exploitation allegations are “rubbish” and that nothing inappropriate or unlawful took place.
The Sun has also come under fire for not including the alleged victim’s side of the story when it published its original allegations over the weekend. The paper has subsequently said it stands by its story.
On Tuesday, the constant drip of new allegations and developments continued, with a claim from a second person — not linked to first alleged victim — who said the same BBC host met them online.
A report on the BBC’s website describes this second person as being in their “early 20s” and said that they described their interaction with the host in an online post, and later spoke to BBC journalists about the incident. The report says the contact was initiated by the host on a dating app.
The BBC reported that when the second person suggested that they might publicly name the host, the presenter allegedly sent them abusive messages.
Also Tuesday, British police confirmed that they had been contacted in April by the family of the alleged victim, but after looking into the complaint, the police said “no criminality was identified.”
‘So much speculation’
“It’s very difficult and very complicated,” said Lis Howell, a longtime broadcasting executive and former journalism professor at City University of London.
“Obviously, the presenter is not going to be outed by the BBC, because that’s going to be a problem with privacy and defamation laws,” Howell told CBC News in an interview.
“But at the moment, what’s happening is that other presenters are being tortured by social media and having a bad time — there is just so much speculation.”
“It might be better just to bite the bullet and say, ‘I did it.’ I have a feeling that’s not going to happen as it would be very very hard to do, but it would possibly be the best thing.”
Matthew Gill, a British media lawyer who has been following the case, says BBC management is trying to demonstrate that it takes allegations of improper conduct by staff seriously, while at the same time, trying to protect itself from defamation.
“The BBC has a duty to protect its employees. And it is challenging when this story is so damaging to so many different people at the BBC,” said Gill.
BBC facing criticism for delay
In a timeline released by the BBC, it claims the complaint was first referred to its “Corporate Investigations Team” on May 19. Between then and June 6, the BBC said it tried to make contact with the complainant, without success.
After that, the timeline suggests there was no movement on the file until July 6, the day before The Sun published its story.
At that point, the timeline said senior BBC management became aware of the allegations for the first time.
Also on that day, management discussed the matter with the BBC presenter and he was told that he would be off the air until the matter was resolved.
“What they [the BBC] are being criticised for is that there was a seven week delay — until The Sun article came out — before they took any other steps,” said Gill.
Davie, the director general, said in the BBC radio interview that the corporation received roughly 250 serious complaints in six months.
Case ‘challenging’ for BBC
“It’s challenging for the BBC,” said Gill. “There is a question whether taxpayers would want the BBC to hire 100 people to investigate every complaint, or whether the public would want them to take a more proportionate approach.”
The BBC has been embroiled in a number of high-profile sexual misconduct cases in recent years, and Howell, the former journalism professor, says whether charges are laid or not, this case presents a major public relations problem for the corporation.
She says that regardless of whether police eventually lay charges and name the employee, BBC management will likely eventually be forced to act.
“If you have an eminent presenter … and you are distracted by thoughts of a colourful sex life, that’s not going to work,” Howell said.
“So the BBC will have to step in, even if it’s not illegal.”