The mainstream media followed legal authority and chose not to name Huw Edwards until his wife revealed he was at the centre of the BBC’s investigation. They respected his right to privacy and reputation. However, predictably, social media lit up with gossip and rumour, unleashing speculation as to the identity of the “BBC presenter” in the reports and defaming innocent people caught in the crosshairs. Some of those wrongly identified have already stated that they will bring defamation actions, as they are entitled to do.
The law recognises that everyone has a reasonable expectation of privacy and recent case law establishes that a suspect in an investigation should normally be able to keep their identity a secret until they are charged. Rightly so. If a suspect is named and no charges are brought, the suspect would be unjustly defamed. As those who work in reputation management know, it can be difficult to restore a reputation once tarnished. As the old adage goes: there is no smoke without fire.
So, what happened? The BBC did not name Huw Edwards. However, to show it was behaving properly and responsibly and to maintain its own reputation, the BBC announced that it was investigating allegations and that the presenter was suspended while under investigation. These statements, together with speculation on social media, from users not complying with privacy laws, meant other presenters were forced to deny that they were under investigation and threaten defamation actions. This could only lead to identification by elimination.
Reputation managers will debate whether Huw Edwards should have attempted to keep his name out of the mainstream news outlets, but it is obvious why he did so. Unlike a social media storm, which can be transient, mainstream press articles now live forever on the internet and have authority as an accurate record. Therefore, even after social media had named him, he knew that being named by the mainstream press would make it difficult for him to move on and restore his reputation later.
Huw Edwards lost the battle to maintain his reputation and a right to privacy. The lawlessness of social media meant that he could no longer avail himself of the protection of the law. While the laws apply to social media in the same way that they do to the mainstream press, they are often ignored by posters. This exposes them to claims in defamation and privacy but whether social media can be brought under control in future or whether high-profile individuals under investigation can ever really utilise privacy laws remains to be seen.