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BBC Suspension of Staff Member Fuels Speculation, Despite Few Facts

For three days, the BBC has been caught up in a feverish mystery over allegations that a prominent personality for the British broadcaster paid tens of thousands of pounds to a teenager for sexually explicit photos.

The BBC said on Sunday that it had suspended a male staff member, whom it did not identify, and would meet with London’s police force to discuss the matter.

On Monday, though, the case grew murkier. The police said they were making inquiries to determine whether a crime had been committed, but that they had not opened a formal investigation into the matter. Hours later, the BBC reported, a lawyer for the teenager said in a letter to the broadcaster that the allegations, first published last Friday in The Sun, a London tabloid, were “rubbish.”

The lawyer for the teenager said, “nothing inappropriate or unlawful has taken place between our client and the BBC personality,” according to the BBC. Its reporters did not identify the lawyer.

The lurid allegations were the latest blow to the Britain’s public broadcaster, which has often found itself in the political cross-hairs over the actions or statements of its on-air personalities. But in this case, there are far more questions than answers, starting with the identities of those involved.

Detectives from the specialist crime command of the police met with officials from the BBC on Monday. The BBC referred the matter to the police after the corporation said it had recently been presented with new allegations, two months after initially learning about a complaint from the teenager’s mother.

The BBC described the person suspended as a “presenter,” which on British television typically refers to a news anchor, the host of a news show or other on-air personality.

In a statement, the police said the detectives were “assessing the information discussed at the meeting and further enquiries are taking place to establish whether there is evidence of a criminal offense being committed.”

The Sun, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, reported that the staff member paid the teenager more than £35,000, or almost $45,000, for explicit images over a period of several years that began when the person was 17 years old. It said the mother of the teenager complained to the BBC in mid-May, though it did not identify her or the child.

But the lawyer told the BBC that his client notified The Sun in a WhatsApp message on Friday, before the article was published, that the mother’s statement was “totally wrong and there was no truth in it.”

A spokeswoman for The Sun said on Monday that it had reported the concerns of parents about the conduct of a BBC staff member and their child’s welfare. “Their complaint was not acted upon by the BBC,” she said. “We have seen evidence that supports their concerns. It’s now for the BBC to properly investigate.”

On Sunday, the BBC said it took the report “seriously” and had “robust internal processes in place to proactively deal with such allegations.” But it did not explain the gap between the mother’s first complaint in May and her second contact last Thursday, which occurred a day before the article appeared.

British politicians, often quick to criticize the BBC’s management, have been cautious in this case because of the lack of facts and the privacy and libel issues raised by it. Under British law, the age of consent is 16, but it is a crime to take, make, share or possess indecent images of anyone under 18.

“This is quite a difficult, nuanced legal issue,” Alex Chalk, the justice minister, said in an interview with Sky News. “I’m not going to criticize them at this stage because it will depend on all sorts of things.”

Still, as details emerge about the BBC’s handling of the matter, analysts said it could blow back on its senior executives, including the director-general, Tim Davie. Mr. Davie came under criticism for his handling of a furor over a Twitter post by its best-known sports commentator, Gary Lineker, that resulted in Mr. Lineker’s suspension, then reinstatement.

In April, the BBC’s chairman, Richard Sharp, resigned over his role in arranging a nearly $1 million loan for Boris Johnson while he was prime minister. The drumbeat of problems has exposed the BBC to criticism from the right and left.

“We can’t prejudge what happened,” Claire Enders, a London-based media analyst, said of the latest crisis. “This is going to be dealt with comprehensively by the police.”

The Sun’s report triggered a tense weekend for other BBC figures who found themselves the subject of unsavory speculation. Several, including Mr. Lineker, took to social media to deny they were the target of the allegations. Nicky Campbell, a host on BBC Radio 5 Live, reported an anonymous Twitter account to the police after it erroneously claimed he was the subject of the story.

“An investigation is underway and enquiries are ongoing,” the police said of the account. “There have been no arrests.”

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Mohammad SHiblu

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