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BBC’s Coverage of Anchor’s Behavior Raises Questions of Its Own

There were urgent NATO meetings about the war in Ukraine, raging floods from India to Vermont, and a record heat wave across America. But this week the BBC wound up airing wall-to-wall coverage of a different story: itself

The confirmation that Huw Edwards, a prominent BBC anchor, was the unnamed person at the heart of allegations of sexual misconduct ended days of breathless speculation that consumed Britain’s public broadcaster. Yet it left a lingering sense of unease about the role of the British news media — and its even more intrusive cousin, social media — in the unmasking of a public figure.

Mr. Edwards, his wife said on Wednesday, has been hospitalized with a mental breakdown aggravated by a tabloid newspaper report that he paid tens of thousands of pounds to a teenager for sexually explicit images. The police said they found no evidence that Mr. Edwards had committed a crime, raising questions about why the BBC devoted hours of airtime, or the papers acres of newsprint, to what turned out to be the private life of one of the broadcaster’s stars.

The allegations were salacious, to be sure — catnip for the British press — and the BBC was trying to show journalistic integrity by not shying away from embarrassing news about a member of its own staff.

But the larger reason for the saturation coverage, media executives, editors and analysts said, is that Mr. Edwards is no ordinary news anchor, and the BBC is no ordinary media outlet.

“It’s always in the center of the storm because of its power,” Howard Stringer, a former president of CBS who served on the BBC’s board. “The BBC, like the monarchy, is a symbol of continuity in a polarized society.”

Mr. Edwards, 61, occupied a lofty perch in this singular institution, not unlike that of Walter Cronkite, the CBS anchor who was once the face and voice of history for millions of Americans. Gray-haired and grave, he broke the news of the death of Queen Elizabeth II last September and then led the BBC’s coverage of the coronation of King Charles III in May. An anchor on the flagship “BBC News at Ten” program, he is the broadcaster’s go-to journalist for history-in-the-making.

“You can’t think of anyone else in British journalism at the moment who captured that sense of stability,” said Mr. Stringer, who, like Mr. Edwards, was born in Wales.

The BBC’s unique status, he said, and the fact that it is financed through a compulsory license fee imposed on most British households, makes it a ripe target for politicians and competitors. Even before this episode, the BBC lurched from crisis to crisis over the conduct and statements of some of its most prominent figures. It has often found itself in the political cross hairs, targeted from both the right and left.

The drama involving Mr. Edwards began last Friday, when The Sun, a tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch, reported that an unnamed BBC staff member had paid the teenager more than £35,000, or almost $45,000, for explicit photos over a period of several years that began when the person was 17.

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.

After initially saying it was looking into whether a crime had been committed, the London police said on Wednesday that there was no evidence to suggest Mr. Edwards had done so. The Sun responded by saying it would publish no further allegations. Instead, it said it would turn over its dossier on Mr. Edwards to the BBC, which is conducting its own investigation into the matter.

But critics said the damage had been done. While the paper did not name Mr. Edwards, his identity quickly became an open secret in cyberspace. And while The Sun’s editors say they never accused the staff member of a crime, the paper published a story under the headline, “Top BBC star who ‘paid child for sex pictures’ could be charged by cops and face years in prison, expert says.”

In addition to the allegations about the sexually explicit images, the BBC itself reported on Tuesday that a second young person had come forward claiming that the male staff member — now identified as Mr. Edwards — had sent angry and abusive messages to the person via a dating app.

Mr. Edwards’s wife, Vicky Flind, said he would address the situation when he regained his health. But given the sordid nature of the allegations, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which he returns to an anchor chair at the BBC, where he began as a news trainee in 1984. In a statement on behalf of Mr. Edwards, his wife said he would be receiving inpatient care “for the foreseeable future.”

“What we had was a kangaroo court, which destroyed someone who did not commit a crime,” said Claire Enders, a London-based media analyst. “The BBC got drawn into the feeding frenzy. It got drawn into a trap set by The Sun.”

The BBC, to be sure, complicated its own situation. The broadcaster waited seven weeks after the mother of the teenager lodged her initial complaint with its audience services department to confront Mr. Edwards about the allegations or to escalate the matter to the top levels of the BBC.

Only after The Sun contacted the broadcaster on July 6 with additional allegations from the mother did the BBC’s director-general, Tim Davie, get involved. Mr. Davie later admitted that the episode showed the need to re-examine how complaints are “red flagged through the organization.” In this case, he noted that the first complaint, while serious, “did not include an allegation of criminality.”

Once the BBC acted, critics said it went overboard in its coverage. The allegations led every newscast and were played at the top of the BBC’s website, which also ran an exhaustive live briefing. Correspondents referred repeatedly to the unnamed “presenter,” even though his identity was so well known in the newsroom that at one point, a host mistakenly said “Huw” instead of “who.”

The story eclipsed the NATO summit meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivered a speech about Britain’s military support for Ukraine. Mr. Sunak got more coverage for his comment, on the way to Vilnius, when he called the reports of payments by the presenter “shocking and concerning.”

“The BBC lost its sense of proportion,” said Alan Rusbridger, a former editor of The Guardian. “It gets into this mind-set where it feels it must make up for sluggishness in handling issues by showing a clean pair of hands in covering them.”

The pressure is particularly intense because of the legacy of Jimmy Savile, the comedian and BBC host who was exposed as a serial sex predator after his death in 2011. The BBC was accused of covering up allegations against Mr. Savile; the fallout from that scandal cost one of Mr. Davie’s predecessors his job.

Yet history also played a part in the BBC’s refusal to name Mr. Edwards. In 2018, the British singer, Cliff Richard, won a privacy case against the broadcaster after it aired pictures of a police raid on his home after he faced a sexual assault allegation. Mr. Richard was never arrested or charged, and the BBC ended up paying him a 2 million pound ($2.6 million) settlement.

At the heart of every such story is the question of how to balance an individual’s right to privacy with the public’s interest in knowing the truth. In the age of Twitter and Facebook, however, that has become an increasingly moot exercise. Mr. Edwards’s name was trending on Twitter within a day of The Sun’s report.

“This is a particularly problematic case,” Mr. Rusbridger said. “He’s a very well known journalist, and he works in a gossipy industry, so it was inevitable that his name would come out. You drop enough hints and let Twitter do the rest.”

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Mohammad SHiblu

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