The Huw Edwards allegations: How The Sun triggered a week of rampant speculation

By: sam doak&
August 11 2023

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The Huw Edwards allegations: How The Sun triggered a week of rampant speculation

Source: Reuters

Early last month, readers of The Sun were presented with a mystery, as the tabloid reported that “a familiar face who is known to millions” had solicited intimate photographs from a minor. As the individual was initially unnamed, this triggered a week of frantic speculation online and in the media, with prominent British media figures publicly ruling themselves out as the anonymous BBC presenter at the heart of The Sun’s reporting. 

Ultimately, the identity of Huw Edwards, one of the United Kingdom’s best-known newsreaders, was revealed in a statement issued by his wife. While the allegations concerning Edwards were serious, the witch hunt that preceded his identification reflects both the legal and ethical difficulties that arise when a high-profile story such as this emerges and the tendency for social media speculation to give rise to harmful misinformation.  

The Sun’s reporting  

The events leading up to the identification of Huw Edwards began with a story published in British tabloid newspaper The Sun on July 7. Citing conversations with the parents of an unnamed young person, the newspaper claimed, “The well-known presenter is accused of giving the teen more than £35,000 since they were 17 in return for sordid images.” These allegations were particularly serious because it is illegal in the United Kingdom to solicit pictures of this nature from an individual under the age of 18. In the days that followed, however, a less clear-cut picture emerged. 

On July 10, it was reported that lawyers representing the young person at the heart of the Sun’s story had issued a statement claiming the allegations published by the paper were “rubbish.” Stating the newspaper had received a similar denial prior to publishing, the lawyers clarified the position of their client in the following terms, “For the avoidance of doubt, nothing inappropriate or unlawful has taken place between our client and the BBC personality and the allegations reported in the Sun newspaper are rubbish.”

To complicate matters, additional reporting by the BBC and others revealed further allegations concerning inappropriate behavior on the part of Edwards. While seemingly not as serious as those which were reported by The Sun, four additional accounts concerning Edwards’s alleged conduct emerged, relating to individuals in their twenties. 

The makings of a witch hunt 

While The Sun has chosen to stand by its original reporting and insisted that its story did not allege criminality, its anonymous nature had severe knock-on effects on individuals employed at the BBC. 

In the days following July 7, social media users began speculating on the identity of the unnamed individual at the heart of The Sun’s reporting. This was partly fueled by hashtags associated with the unfolding story repeatedly trending on Twitter. While prominent figures largely steered clear of naming individuals, regular social media users frequently hinted at, and in cases identified, figures they thought could be the unnamed presenter, thus spreading and fueling misinformation. 

As reported by The Guardian, terms related to the scandal repeatedly trended on Twitter during the week following The Sun’s reporting. This made it easy for users to find unsubstantiated accounts and theories on who might be at fault. As speculation mounted, high-profile BBC presenters, including Jeremy Vine, Rylan Clark, and Gary Lineker, felt obliged to publicly deny their involvement in the activities alleged by the newspaper, narrowing the field for those speculating on who it could be. 

A key narrative that took hold in some spaces was that the lack of clarity relating to the individual’s identity was the result of an institutional coverup. On why a person in such a position would choose to delay public identification, a Senior Account Executive at the communications agency Fire on the Hill told Logically Facts, “The most natural response might be to want to get your side out of the story as quickly as possible, particularly on highly emotive issues. But knee-jerk reactions, such as closing accounts, posting tearful denials, or issuing an erroneous rebuttal risk inflaming the situation further – for example, rushing out a statement, which turns out to be incorrect, fuels the flames even more.”

Unverified information begins to leak

While online speculation created issues, coverage of this event posed its own set of problems for news outlets. Due to legal and ethical concerns, no mainstream organizations publicly named Edwards, but gradually it became more obvious to the wider public that he was the unnamed individual. 

In its televised coverage, GB News made the highly questionable decision to repeatedly air a silhouette of Edwards, easily identifiable as having been created from a photograph of the presenter. Outside of this, some began to notice that searching Edward’s name on YouTube began returning anonymized reports concerning The Sun’s story, likely due to users citing his name in comments sections.

(Image source: GB News)

By July 9, Huw Edwards’s name was trending on Twitter, with users explicitly tying him to The Sun’s reporting. At this point, his identity was widely known by large sections of the public, putting news organizations in the arguably uncomfortable position of being unable to report what many already knew or suspected.

(Image source: X)

While GB News hinted at Edwards’s role in the unfolding story, no national news outlet published his name prior to July 12, with the exception of Policalite, a British fringe, far-right news site. Stating that they were publishing from Florida, perhaps in an attempt to skirt U.K. regulations, the site reported what much of the country already knew as an “exclusive” on July 11. 

(Image source: X)

Ultimately, a combination of high-profile denials, public accusations on social media, clues derived from media innuendo, and the actions of Politcalite led to Edwards’ involvement in this story being relatively widely known prior to his wife’s statement on July 12. 

A legal quagmire

The picture initially painted by The Sun’s journalists was a grave one, reminiscent of some of the darkest scandals faced by the institution in living memory. In light of this, some questioned why the individual at the center of this story was allowed to remain anonymous. 

The answer to this question lies in the relatively stringent legal and ethical framework under which journalists in the United Kingdom operate. Speaking to Logically Facts, a professor of media and communication at Goldsmiths outlined the issues concerning potential libel actions arising from careless and malicious discourse: “Identification of an individual in connection with inaccurate allegations that cause serious harm to the individual could be actionable.” Crucially, an individual need not be named for this to be the case, as Professor Crook explained, “The identification could be by implication/inference and triangulation by jigsaw publication elsewhere enabling a third-party audience (which only needs to be one person) to properly identify the potential Claimant.” 

While individuals and outlets can defend against a libel action by attempting to demonstrate that allegations are true, even in cases of wrongdoing, privacy protections can come into play. Explaining this, Professor Crook told Logically Facts that privacy protection also overlaps with libel in protecting wrongful private information, and in the cases of Sir Cliff Richard v BBC 2018 High Court, and ZXC v Bloomberg UKSC 2022, provides protection even when the individual is actually being investigated for a crime, including arrest and questioning under caution, up until the time somebody is charged.”

On the legal rationale underpinning this level of protection, Professor Crook elaborated, “This is on the basis that public dissemination of this private information would be catastrophic in terms of harm to reputation, and this would be irretrievable should it be the case that the police decide no crime has been committed or no future criminal legal proceedings take place. The jurisprudence of the courts in recent years is that mud always sticks, and privacy is like a cube of ice – once melted, lost forever.” 

The road ahead

The tendency of social media users to identify and shame perceived wrongdoers is not a new or novel phenomenon, nor one that is always tied to altruistic motives. Recently published research by a team of academics led by Princeton’s Anna Barron suggests that participants in social media pile-ons are largely motivated by schadenfreude, the feeling of deriving pleasure from another person’s misfortune rather than a desire to address a wrong. With this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that the public often seems to prioritize speed over rigor in cases such as this.

Time will tell if The Sun’s reporting will be validated or if the BBC uncovers further instances of wrongdoing. In the meantime, the events that transpired in July should serve as a reminder of the need to approach allegations of this nature with care, professionalism, and good judgment.

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