EXCLUSIVE: The UK government has been accused of interfering with the BBC’s independence after pressuring the broadcaster to control the Huw Edwards scandal in July.
Within hours The sun newspaper publishing allegations that Edwards paid a teenager for sexual images, a senior official all but ordered the BBC to investigate, according to emails obtained by Deadline under a Freedom of Information Act request.
The BBC is editorially and operationally independent of the government and people familiar with the corporation’s governance have said it is the job of the board, not ministers, to police issues like the Edwards storm.
This didn’t stop Robert Specterman-Green, director of media at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), sending a message to BBC chief of staff Phil Harrold on Saturday 8 July to set out expectations from the government.
“While I recognize that this is a matter for the BBC to manage, I would like to underline, on behalf of the DCMS, our expectation that the BBC will look into this urgently and proactively take all necessary and appropriate action,” Specterman-Green wrote.
He sent an email before the BBC board met on Zoom for an extraordinary meeting to discuss the Edwards issue that Saturday. Harrold responded by reassuring Specterman-Green that the BBC was taking the matter “very seriously”.
A day later, culture secretary Lucy Frazer released a statement saying she had spoken to BBC director-general Tim Davie about the “deeply concerning allegations”. She added that the broadcaster must “have space” to conduct its investigations. Edwards was suspended later that day.
Emails between the DCMS and the BBC’s Frazer program organized at least two further phone calls with Davie and BBC acting chairman Elan Closs Stephens in the two days following his statement.
A prominent conservative lawmaker told Deadline that the government appeared to have overstepped its bounds when it intervened in the Edwards scandal.
“There is a misconception among politicians who think that when the BBC is under attack like this, they have to get involved immediately,” said the Tory. “I don’t think it was done with evil intentions, but rather with a kind of naivety on the part of the government; not understanding their role and the relationship between them and the BBC.”
A former BBC journalist added that it was an “extraordinary” response and accused the government of “chasing fire engines”, especially as it was unclear whether ministers were aware of Edwards’ identity at the time authorities first contacted the broadcaster.
In response, the DCMS stood by its actions, saying it had the right to remind the BBC of its duties. “The BBC is operationally independent of the government and this was clear in all our conversations with the broadcaster. At no time did the authorities or ministers direct the BBC to investigate this matter,” a spokesperson said.
The BBC said: “The simple fact is that the BBC was already investigating; As the facts show, it was not necessary for the government to request it.”
Baroness Stowell, chair of the influential Lords Communications and Digital Committee, questioned Frazer about his intervention during a hearing in September. Stowell said it was “not standard” for the government to contact the director-general about a BBC operational matter. “This was a very serious issue and it was important that the government made its opinion known,” replied Frazer.
Edwards in future talks
Little was written about Edwards after he was identified by his wife, Vicky Flind, in a statement revealing he had been hospitalized with serious mental health issues. Edwards has not commented on the saga, which police said did not meet the threshold for investigation.
Nearly five months later, BBC sources told Deadline that Edwards is in talks about his future amid widespread sentiment within the corporation that it will be difficult to bring him back from suspension. Deadline previously reported on how the BBC is considering election night coverage without Edwards.
Three people said Edwards had received evidence from a “fact-finding” review into his behavior and that his exit was being negotiated. “He’s out,” said a senior BBC insider. “I haven’t seen the report, but I know there is no way back.”
The investigation, which the BBC has never described as a full investigation, has been tightly controlled and it is unclear what, if anything, has been discovered about Edwards, or whether he is contesting the findings.
In addition to allegedly paying a teenager for sexual images, The sun published additional allegations about Edwards violating Covid lockdown rules to meet someone from a dating site. BBC News reported allegations that he sent threatening messages to a third young man. News at night also alleged that Edwards sent “suggestive” messages to junior BBC staff, including comments about their appearance.
A BBC spokesperson said: “As we have previously explained, we will not provide comment on what an internal employment process is and we ask people not to indulge in speculation.”
Edwards and his attorney did not respond to requests for comment.
The BBC’s discussions with the government over Edwards are not the first time the corporation’s independence has been called into question during a scandal. Deadline revealed in June that BBC director-general Davie was in contact with a senior government official on the day he suspended Gary Lineker, raising questions about whether he was pressured to punish the presenter for breaking impartiality rules.