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10 July 2023

Hunt for the suspended BBC presenter exposes our privacy law mess

Online sleuths will inevitably accuse the wrong people. Better to name the subjects of investigations.

By James Ball

It must have been a strange weekend to be one of the BBC’s hundreds upon hundreds of male TV or radio presenters. After the Sun revealed allegations from a mother that a male “household name” had “groomed” her teenage child and had them send illicit photos in exchange for payment, Twitter went on a witch hunt for the right name.

This was exacerbated by a breadcrumb trail of clues – especially once the BBC said the star had been suspended and would not appear on air while the allegations were investigated. Online sleuths checked for who had and hadn’t appeared, and whether or not X or Y had turned up in their usual broadcast slot. Presenters take time off all the time – just like people in any other job they get sick or take holidays, or their shows are seasonal and so aren’t broadcast all the time. The Sun’s decision not to name the presenter concerned meant that dozens of other presenters got accused of misconduct, and several were so pressured that they felt compelled to issue statements saying that they were not the person at the heart of the story.

There are parallels here with what’s currently going on in parliament, where multiple MPs have had the whip withdrawn – or have been barred from attending the Commons – as rumours swirl and investigations into alleged wrongdoing rumble on. A toxic mixture of new privacy law and institutions which should have reformed but haven’t has created a system that is failing on all fronts.

The BBC has been criticised for not naming the presenter – ignoring that the press, often no friend of the public broadcaster – has done the same. But in a strange way the BBC is to blame for the media’s current predicament when it comes to reporting.

The broadcaster not only covered a raid of Cliff Richard’s home by police in 2014 – which resulted in no further action – but dispatched a helicopter for aerial shots. When it was sued on privacy grounds by Richard, bosses looking to protect their own careers fought a stupid case in the High Court, to the despair of media onlookers. The BBC’s loss of that case set a new precedent that when police investigations are under way, the media should not name the target until arrest – and because contempt of court laws kick in at arrest, it is difficult to report much about what is happening then.

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This was all made worse by a Supreme Court ruling against Bloomberg in 2022 in a case brought by a party known as ZXC – of whom more can’t be said for legal reasons, because Bloomberg lost that too. The court ruled that suspects under investigation have “a reasonable expectation of privacy”.

Suffice it to say that where there is a clear public interest, strong evidence and witnesses who will testify in court, and there are signs that conventional channels are not delivering accountability, the media can still name perpetrators of alleged wrongdoing – as the Financial Times did when it named the hedge fund manager and Conservative donor Crispin Odey in a recent investigation. Odey was accused by 13 women of sexual harassment or assault; he denied the allegations.

But that is a very high bar to clear, and the result is more and more reporting that cannot name the person at the heart of it. People are quick to blame social media for the guessing game that follows, but really it is just human nature. Can you blame anyone for wanting to know – especially if they work in the industries involved?

The other problem is not privacy law but institutions themselves. The BBC and parliament have both experienced a long string of scandals from which they have repeatedly promised to learn lessons – and it seems that neither has. Parliament still does not have a truly independent complaints and investigations process, meaning that any complaint is still subject to political interference. The BBC still seems sluggish and under-accountable – when it comes to the current story, it is said to have been aware of the complaints since May, with little sign of action until the Sun was involved.

Organisations need to strike a better balance, to protect victims, the accused, and the rest of their staff. What we have now is not working. Even if they only issue a one-sentence statement confirming a suspension, they should name the person, stressing that nothing is proven, and describe the rough area of investigation.

This isn’t perfect. But it must be better than the Crucible-esque mess that each new allegation currently engenders.

[See also: Can Deborah Turness fix BBC News?]

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