BBC vs The Sun: The story so far, and why media ethics matter

While the BBC allegedly did not act on a complaint against a presenter, the Sun has been accused of a lack of reporting standards.

WrittenBy:NL Team
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The BBC and British tabloid The Sun are under fire over an ostensible lack of accountability and reporting standards, even as they both engage in a media war over an alleged sexual misconduct scandal involving one of the broadcaster’s presenters. 

While the BBC stands accused of inaction against its presenter Huw Edwards despite a complaint from the family of one of his “teenage victims”, The Sun is facing questions of journalistic impropriety with a U-turn on its reportage – which had accused the anchor of sexual misconduct – after a police assessment ruled out any criminal wrongdoing. 

In the last few days, both BBC and The Sun have published a series of articles countering each other’s claims while the controversy has raged on. Even UK prime minister Rishi Sunak termed the allegations against the BBC presenter “shocking and concerning”. 

Presenter suspended, The Sun backtracks

It all began with a report in The Sun on July 7 claiming that a “well-known presenter” was paying a cocaine user for three years “since they were 17” in return for explicit images. It claimed that the BBC refused to act for seven weeks despite a complaint from the parents. In other reports, it claimed that the unnamed presenter allegedly breached lockdown rules during the pandemic, indulged in cyber bullying, and sent inappropriate messages to four minors on social media. 

On July 9, two days after The Sun report, the BBC suspended the presenter, later revealed to be Huw Edwards. 

On July 10, the police began probing the matter without launching a formal investigation. 

But the same day,  the alleged “cocaine user”, who is now 20 years old, accused The Sun of not reaching out to them for comment. In its subsequent reports, the paper distanced itself from the allegations of the person being a teenager during the transactions, and instead emphasised on the BBC’s delayed action in the case. 

BBC News has reported on the case independently, treating the BBC “as if it were any other organisation”. But BBC has been in the dock for alleged inaction against the presenter, whose identity it revealed amid surmounting pressure by publishing a statement from his wife. The statement said that Edwards was in the hospital, suffering from “serious mental health issues” and was apologetic that so many colleagues were impacted by the “media speculation”.  

On July 12, a report in TheGuardian quoted a statement by The Sun as saying that at “no point” did its original story allege criminality. This was on the day the police concluded its inquiry in the matter and said it involved no criminal wrongdoing.

But the same day, the BBC reinitiated its investigations into the presenter as fresh allegations emerged. Some junior BBC staffers accused Edwards of “inappropriate conduct”. One of the employees alleged that the presenter had sent them “inappropriate and suggestive messages”, while two former employees claimed that they had also received texts from Edwards that made them “feel uncomfortable”.

Questions over Sun’s reportage

The tabloid’s reports were based on interviews with the 20-year-old’s mother and stepfather, who were not named in its coverage. The mother and stepfather had also allegedly cited evidence, including bank statements detailing payments made by Edwards, but The Sun did not clarify whether it had accessed the evidence.

In subsequent reports, the newspaper distanced itself from its claim that the 20-year-old was a teenager when Edwards had sought explicit images, and instead emphasised on the BBC’s delayed action in the case and the family’s concerns to “save their child”. 

In response to the questions whether it had accessed evidence, The Sun said that its story about the BBC presenter “was always squarely in the public interest” and the fresh allegations against Edwards being reported by the BBC itself had established it “beyond dispute”. 

Following the police’s clean-chit, the newspaper blamed other media outlets for misinterpreting its reporting and speculating criminality, The Guardian reported

Accusations against BBC  

For seven weeks, the BBC did not flag the complaint against Edwards to its senior management. It first received the complaint in the matter by a family member of the 20-year-old on May 19. The complaint was sent to its corporate investigations team, and it was only on June 6 that it made its singular attempt to reach out to the complainant on phone. 

The BBC claimed it tried to contact the complainant through email too, but the 20-year-old’s mother suggested to The Sun that the BBC did not take the accusations seriously enough.

The Sun, meanwhile, published a total of nine questions that it claimed the BBC refused to answer. This included whether Edwards had been spoken to after the initial complaint.  

On July 12, The Sun published a report with a 23-year-old claiming that the presenter broke lockdown rules to meet them during the pandemic in February 2021. On the same day, it also reported that Edwards allegedly messaged a 17-year-old on Instagram with “love, hearts and kisses” emojis. 

The same day, the BBC questioned Sun on whether it accessed the evidence against the presenter, and if it reached out to the subjects involved before the publication, and why it did not carry the subject’s denial in its reports. 

The two publications are competitors. The Sun is the most widely-read commercial newsbrand in the UK in overall reach, with an estimated audience of 31.1 million every month, as per audience body Pamco. Meanwhile, according to another data aggregator Ipsos iris, the BBC is the biggest news brand in the UK, and the biggest English-speaking news service in the world.   

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