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BBC presenter crisis: what’s behind the broadcaster’s response? 

The new crisis faced by the BBC is a particularly unusual one which has given rise to many questions.  This is a fast-moving story and clearly many of the facts are unknown, but we know enough to identify the main areas of concern and to consider why the BBC has approached the matter in the way it has.  

There are three key questions currently driving this story. 

  1. How was the initial complaint handled? 

If it’s true that the mother and step-father of the 20-year-old involved in this story complained to the BBC on the 19th May then why didn’t it immediately identify the potential for reputational damage and take much more decisive action at that point? Alarm bells should have immediately rung given the age of the young person, the respective power imbalance and the nature of the allegations.  It seems remarkable they could have been so casual about it, particularly in the weeks after the Phillip Schofield controversy, by allowing the presenter to continue in his duties.  

Could the story have been averted if the mother had been taken more seriously at the time?  Did the BBC feel hampered by the fact the young person is an adult and their parents were effectively third parties?  The problem may well have been an overly legalistic or formula-driven approach when the human needs of the parents should have been the guiding force.  

  1. Why was the presenter not suspended until Sunday July 9th ? 

Over the weekend the BBC felt there were grounds to suspend the presenter and contact the police, though the police have said there is nothing for them to investigate.  Is this a case of an overreaction in the face of a media storm?   Or, if there were genuine grounds for suspension, why didn’t they establish this earlier?  Either way a belated suspension raises more questions than it answers.   

  1. What constraints were put on the presenter? 

As well as appearing on screen after the complaint was made, the presenter also allegedly contacted the young person to ask them for their help in quashing the story (the individual later issued a statement saying the The Sun’s piece was ‘rubbish’).  While the two individuals are adults and it’s difficult to police such interactions the presenter will have obligations not to bring their employer into disrepute. The fact they have not been dismissed after news of the direct approach emerged suggests the constraints it initially put on the presenter were slight.   

BUT in the interests of balance, it’s important to highlight some of the complexities the BBC is facing.  

  1. Why did they act so slowly? 

The BBC says it acted swiftly and decisively once it became aware of the more serious allegations (although it doesn’t deny knowing about the complaint in May). The BBC is an enormous organisation and the complaint may simply not have been escalated to the right people in a timely way.  People will say this is no excuse but these bureaucracies are stifling.  

  1. Why has the presenter not been named? 

The lack of clarity has given rise to outrageous speculation online about other presenters.  But the BBC is in an impossible position.  As an employer it owes duties of confidentiality to the presenter and must follow due process.  If the allegations are denied and subsequently not proven then the destruction of the presenter’s career and reputation caused by naming him would give rise to eye-watering damages and further reputational disgrace for the BBC. Plus there are privacy laws to consider – and the BBC has had its fingers burned before, notably in its treatment of Cliff Richard.   

  1. What about the young person’s denial of the story? 

To add further complexity, the young person concerned has – through a law firm – called the Sun’s story into question.   Many have commented that this means the story has been invented or exaggerated and that the Sun is just motivated by an anti-BBC bias. But there could be many reasons why the individual should have made this statement and fallen out with their parents, and while it adds to the context of the story it does not on the face of it mean a line can be drawn under this story.  The BBC must have regard to the competing demands of numerous different stakeholders and is walking a very tricky tightrope.  

At the heart of this story there is clearly a very distressing family breakdown and many of the facts – rightly – remain private.  What it shows is the fiendish complexity of modern reputation management in the era of the social media and stricter privacy laws.

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