Within hours of The Sun newspaper publishing allegations that Edwards paid a teenager for sexual images, a high-ranking 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 said it is the job of the board, not ministers, to police issues such as the Edwards firestorm.
This did not stop Robert Specterman-Green, the director of media for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), from messaging BBC chief of staff Phil Harrold on Saturday, July 8, to set out the government’s expectations.
“While recognising this is a matter for the BBC to manage, I wanted to underline, on behalf of DCMS, our expectation that the BBC looks into this with urgency and proactively takes all necessary and appropriate steps,” Specterman-Green wrote.
He emailed before the BBC board had gathered over Zoom for an extraordinary meeting to discuss the Edwards issue that Saturday. Harrold replied 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 be “given the space” to conduct its inquiries. Edwards was suspended later that day.
Emails between the DCMS and BBC show Frazer arranged a least two further phone calls with Davie and BBC acting chair Elan Closs Stephens in the two days following her statement.
A senior Conservative lawmaker told Deadline that the government appeared to have overstepped a boundary when it intervened in the Edwards scandal.
“There is a misplaced view among politicians who think that when the BBC is under fire like this, that somehow they have to get involved straight away,” the Tory said. “I don’t think it was done with malign intent but more a sort 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,” particularly as it was unclear if ministers were aware of Edwards’ identity at the time officials first contacted the broadcaster.
In response, the DCMS stood by its actions, saying it was entitled to remind the BBC of its duties. “The BBC is operationally independent of the government, and this was made clear in all our conversations with the broadcaster. At no point did officials or ministers instruct 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 didn’t need prompting to do so by the government.”
Baroness Stowell, chair of the influential Lords Communications and Digital Committee, questioned Frazer about her intervention during a hearing in September. Stowell claimed it was not “standard” for the government to be in contact with the director general over a BBC operational matter. “That was a very serious issue and it was important that the government made its views known,” Frazer replied.
Edwards In Talks Over Future
Little has been written about Edwards after he was identified by his wife, Vicky Flind, in a statement revealing that 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 on, BBC sources have told Deadline that Edwards is in talks over his future amid a widespread feeling at the corporation that it will be difficult to restore him from suspension. Deadline has previously reported on how the BBC is giving thought to election night coverage without Edwards.
Three people said Edwards had been presented with the evidence of a “fact-finding” review into his behavior and his exit was being negotiated. “He’s out,” said one senior BBC insider. “I haven’t seen the report but know there’s no way back.”
The review, which the BBC has never described as a full-blown investigation, has been tightly controlled and it is unclear what, if anything, has been discovered about Edwards or if he is challenging the findings.
As well as allegedly paying a teenager for sex images, The Sun published additional claims about Edwards breaking Covid lockdown rules to meet someone from a dating site. BBC News reported accusations he sent menacing messages to a third young person. Newsnight also alleged that Edwards sent “suggestive” messages to junior BBC employees, including comments about their appearance.
A BBC spokesperson said: “As we have previously explained, we will not provide a commentary on what is an internal employment process and we would urge people not to indulge in speculation.”
Edwards and his lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
The BBC’s exchanges 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.