Did the BBC act appropriately in the Hew Edwards Case?
The BBC were caught in the cross-hairs of a live and dynamic story that had at its heart the livelihood of one individual and the health and wellbeing of both parties. The BBC were not only dealing with the incident and management of it, they were also responding as a news service reporting on itself. First we will outline points relating to ethical journalism, and then contrast with how they could have handled the actual incident.
Journalism Good Practice.
Verification of Facts: Before publishing any story, it is crucial for the BBC to thoroughly verify the facts and sources involved. Ensuring accuracy and credibility is essential to maintain the trust of their audience. It is because of this and the apparent lack of cooperation inside the actual BBC, between the news room and the C-Suite, the conflict reaped speculation in the public resulting in a social media frenzy. Really the Beeb was in a no-win situation.
Ethical Reporting: The BBC must adhere to ethical journalism standards, such as respect for privacy, avoiding sensationalism, and being sensitive to any potential harm the story might cause to individuals involved. This meant they were dealing with the two human beings, making sure they were appropriately supported, while also trying to show they were responding to a public interest story in a positive way. It was virtually impossible to reconcile these two juxtapositions, in a speed that would satisfy the baying media.
Balance and Impartiality: As a public broadcaster, the BBC should present a balanced and impartial view of the story. This includes providing different perspectives and giving all parties involved an opportunity to respond. This again was an impossibly difficult position for the broadcaster. With Politicians weighing with their opinions the Beeb had to wait it out until the facts became clearer and be as balanced as it could between the news side and the real life harm of the incident.
Clear Attribution: Ensure that information from unverified sources is not presented as fact. If information is coming from anonymous or unofficial sources, make it clear to the audience. Some of the information was coming from the family of the young person – third person – and not eye witness to anything. There was a suggestion from other media outlets they had seen proof that what the family was saying was true – heaping pressure on the Beeb to respond. Yet the Metropolitan Police rejected any case of criminality despite there being clear laws to prosecute Hew Edwards if the evidence was there. This brings into doubt the veracity or provenance of the evidence the family was said to have given to the Sun newspaper. So the Beeb was again not able to act on what it appears was third hand information. Especially when it was reported the actual young person denied anything improper.
Context and Background: Provide relevant context and background information to help the audience understand the significance of the story and its potential impact. The story ran as headline news for a few days and will remain digitally available for years. This shows the kind of impact whistleblowing can have even when it appears the evidence does not back up the story. At least, not currently.
Avoid Speculation: Stick to verified information and avoid speculative statements or rumours that can harm someone’s reputation. The Beeb, more than tabloid journalists, doesn’t usually enter into celebrity style fabrication or innuendo and so with the always on 24/7 consumption of news in today’s society it can be difficult for real journalism to respond in a way that satisfies that hunger and speed of response.
Timely Updates: If new information emerges or there are updates to the story, the BBC should provide timely and accurate updates to their audience. The story was running almost none stop with updates provided digitally almost hourly.
Transparency and Accountability: In case of any mistakes or inaccuracies, the BBC should acknowledge and correct them openly and transparently. And this also plays into not rushing to opinion until the facts are in.
Legal Considerations: Be aware of any legal implications of the story and seek legal advice if necessary to avoid potential legal issues. This story was riddled with legal implications. Not supporting the people involved leading to real world ill health, not dealing appropriately with a potential abuse of a child, not supporting those presenters who were being erroneously implicated via social media – the list goes on…
It’s important to note that each story is unique, and the approach to handling it may vary depending on the specific circumstances. The above points represent general guidelines for responsible journalism, and the BBC’s editorial policies would guide their specific actions in any given situation.
The Public Relations Angle
Dealing with public relations in a whistleblowing scandal within an organisation requires a thoughtful and strategic approach to address the concerns of various stakeholders while preserving the organisation’s reputation.
Acknowledging and responding promptly is generally key. Address the whistleblowing allegations promptly and acknowledge the concerns raised. Avoid delays in responding, as they may be perceived negatively by the public, media and those involved. It would appear this was partly to blame for the family ‘going public’ as they claim it was reported to the Beeb as early as May. This is specifically a problem when the internal whistleblowing mechanisms don’t operate to inform appropriately senior staff to respond quickly enough. With Aranea, the steps to the C-Suite are only three away. From the responder to the report, to their manager, to the board member responsible for Corporate Governance/Compliance; our system would have meant the board knew earlier than it appears it did.
It is always good practice to appoint a spokesperson. Designate a single, credible spokesperson to communicate with the media and the public. This ensures a consistent and controlled message, yet the Beeb relied on its Newsroom to do this, thereby negating any opportunity to promote a belief the organisation was taking the matter seriously. It was of course taking it seriously, but it wasn’t promoting that message publicly.
Staying transparent about the investigation process and assure the public that the allegations will be thoroughly and impartially examined. Share updates on the progress of the investigation to maintain credibility. The Beeb did this, but again through the newsroom and not C-Suite level response.
Protecting the whistleblowers Identity is critical and if legally required the suspected person also. Reiterating the organisation’s commitment to protecting the whistleblower’s identity and ensuring there will be no retaliation against them is a fundamental principle of whistleblowing.
Publicly stating the organisation’s stance against any form of retaliation towards whistleblowers or individuals involved in the investigation was also needed. Again from the C-Suite. At the very least someone from the board should have been interviewed, probably by ITV journalists to further support the emphasis of impartiality and transparency.
Conducting an internal investigation that includes how the incident was dealt with not just the incident itself is critical. Initiating a comprehensive internal investigation into the allegations is now needed and highly likely to be ongoing. If wrongdoing is found, taking appropriate actions publicly, which may include disciplinary measures or policy changes will be needed.
Communicating findings once the internal investigation is complete, communicating the findings and actions taken. Being transparent about any shortcomings and demonstrating a commitment to rectifying the issues is again fundamental to support the reporting persons and the presenter caught up in the incident.
Addressing media inquiries strategically by anticipating and preparing for media inquiries should be central to any briefing. Training spokespeople on how to handle difficult questions and how to stay on message should be second nature to a media organisation. But it is one thing being behind the camera and something completely different being in front of it.
Demonstrating appropriate remedial actions publicly to showcase the steps taken to address the issues raised, including improvements to internal controls, policies, and procedures is a good way to show a learning organisation that is trying to improve.
Employee internal communications to keep employees informed about the situation and address their concerns. Providing reassurance about the organisation’s commitment to ethics and accountability and setting the cultural requirement for future incidents is a good way to reinforce transparency and a robust policy for whistleblowing.
Engaging with stakeholders including the viewing public, politically influential people, suppliers and broadcasting oversight bodies, to address their concerns and maintain their trust in the BBC is another area the BBC board should be planning to put in place.
Learning and improving by demonstrating a commitment to learning from the experience and improving the BBC’s culture and governance to prevent similar issues in the future.
Strengthening the compliance and ethics programs/policies to promote a culture that encourages ethical behavior and reporting of concerns. This is particularly important for the BBC as the Director-General, Tim Davie, appeared to suggest the whistleblowing system within the Beeb isn’t trusted by its employees. Any large organisation such as the Beeb must have a system that isn’t just independent, it is believed to be independent by the staff, the viewing public and other stakeholders. Aranea is the only system on the market that allows employees to report externally without going to internal management where the risk or perception is they will be retaliated against.
Working with external advisors to seek guidance from experts to ensure a fair and unbiased approach to handling the scandal and to uncover areas for improvement is important to reinforce the Beeb has learned.
Dealing with a whistleblowing scandal can be challenging, but a transparent, proactive, and ethical approach to public relations can help the BBC navigate the crisis and rebuild trust with stakeholders over time.