EXCLUSIVE: The UK government has been accused of interfering with the BBC’s independence after putting pressure on the broadcaster to deal with the Huw Edwards scandal in July.
In few hours Sun newspapers published allegations that Edwards paid the teenager for sexual images, according to emails obtained by Deadline through a Freedom of Information Act request, a senior official all but ordered the BBC to launch an investigation.
The BBC is editorially and functionally independent from government, and people familiar with the corporation’s governance say it is up to the board, not ministers, to deal with policing issues such as the Edwards firestorm.
This did not stop Robert Specterman-Green, director of media at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), from sending a message to BBC Chief of Staff Phil Harrold on Saturday 8 July to outline the government’s expectations.
“While I recognize that this is a BBC matter, I wanted to emphasize on behalf of DCMS that we expect the BBC to address this matter as a matter of urgency and proactively take all necessary and appropriate steps,” Specterman-Green wrote.
He sent the email before the BBC’s board convened on Zoom for an emergency meeting to discuss Edwards’ issues this 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 disturbing allegations”. She added that the broadcaster should be “provided with space” to pursue inquiries. Edwards was suspended later that day.
Emails between DCMS and the BBC show that in the two days after her statement, Frazer arranged at least two further telephone calls to Davie and the acting chairman of the BBC, Elan Closs Stephens.
A senior Conservative MP told Deadline that the government appeared to have crossed the line by intervening in the Edwards scandal.
“There is a misconception among politicians that when the BBC is under such fire that somehow they must immediately get involved,” the Tory said. “I don’t think it was done with malicious intent, but rather because of naivety on the part of the government; a misunderstanding of their role and the relationship between them and the BBC.”
The former BBC journalist added that it was an “extraordinary” response and accused the government of “fire engine chasing”, especially as it was unclear whether ministers knew Edwards’ identity when officials first contacted the broadcaster.
In response, DCMS stood by its actions, saying it had the right to remind the BBC of its responsibilities. “The BBC is operationally independent from government, which has been clearly emphasized in all our discussions with the broadcaster. At no time did officials or ministers instruct the BBC to investigate this matter,” the spokesman said.
The BBC said: “The simple fact is that the BBC was already investigating; as the facts show, the government needed no encouragement to do so.”
Baroness Stowell, chair of the Lords’ influential communications and digital committee, questioned Frazer about her intervention at the September hearing. Stowell claimed it was not “standard” for the government to contact the director-general about BBC operational matters. “This was a very serious issue and it was important that the government made its position known,” Frazer replied.
Edwards in talks about the future
Little was written about Edwards after his wife Vicky Flind identified him in a statement revealing he had been hospitalized for serious mental problems. Edwards did not comment on this story, which police say does not meet the requirements of an investigation.
Nearly five months later, BBC sources told Deadline that Edwards was in talks about his future amid a widespread feeling across the corporation that it would be difficult to bring him back after his suspension. Deadline previously reported how the BBC was considering election night coverage without Edwards.
The three people said Edwards was presented with “fact-finding” evidence about his behavior and his departure was negotiated. “He’s gone,” one senior source told the BBC. “I haven’t seen the report, but I know there is no going back.”
The review, which the BBC has never described as a full-blown investigation, was closely scrutinized and it is unclear what – if anything – was discovered about Edwards or whether he disputes the findings.
In addition to allegedly paying the teenager for sexual images, Sun published additional claims about Edwards breaking Covid isolation rules to meet someone from a dating site. BBC News reported allegations that he sent threatening messages to a third young person. Evening news she also alleged that Edwards sent junior BBC staff “suggestive” messages including comments about their appearance.
A BBC spokesman said: “As we have made clear, we will not comment on what the internal hiring process is and we urge people not to indulge in speculation.”
Edwards and his attorney did not respond to requests for comment.
The BBC’s talks with the government regarding Edwards are not the first time the corporation’s independence has been questioned during the scandal. In June, Deadline revealed 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 under pressure to punish the presenter for breaking impartiality rules.