Huw Edwards – an employer’s dilemma?
If you have been following the Huw Edwards news story in the national media over the past week or so, you will no doubt be aware of the legal implications of this high profile employment matter. Some of the information has been protected and not released to the media, including the sex and name of the young person aged 17 when the alleged contact with Edwards began, as well as the very fast “backing-off” of any intrusion of his private life in the days after the Police found no criminal case to be had. So, what’s likely to be happening behind the scenes in this case?
Vaishali Thakerar, Head of Employment at Lawson-West Solicitors, looks at the likely legal impact behind the scenes for the employer and employee.
There are four main legal issues in this case:
The importance of PRIVACY
Huw Edwards’ privacy is vitally important to protect.
UK privacy laws are regulated by the Data Protection Act 2018 (DPA) and UK GDPR. These laws basically protect the right to respect privacy (private and family life) and freedom of expression. Privacy rights include the right to access, rectify, erase, restrict, or object to the processing of personal data. This is why some ‘personal’ details have been omitted, if they had been given, UK Privacy Laws would have been broken.
The case for DEFAMATION
Huw Edwards could sue for libel or slander if his reputation is damaged by published statements that are unjustified, unfair, found to be false or malicious in their intent. He can do this within 12 months of publication. We need to bear in mind that during his long and trusted career, Huw Edwards has worked at BBC News appearing as a very high profile news presenter for the 6-O’Clock News for ten years and the face of News at Ten for nearly twenty years, and years without accusation of impropriety. Huw Edwards has a strong reputation as a competent and serious news journalist and presenter, he is a trusted brand, a household name, and his personal reputation is an important part of the reputation and brand of BBC News. You could argue, what damages Huw Edwards’ personal reputation, damages the BBC’s brand. It was Huw Edwards who led the BBC’s coverage of the Queen’s funeral at Westminster Abbey and it is this level of trust and confidence that he has with the UK’s general public. Is this an employee you want to support throughout a brand-damaging news crisis? The answer must surely be Yes.
MISCONDUCT of an employee
If Huw Edwards was found to have acted in a criminal way (which the Police have confirmed he has not), then BBC News would have to take steps towards a formal investigation and a likely disciplinary for gross misconduct. Where there is no evidence to support a criminal charge, or charges have been dropped, then the employer’s duty is different and more sanguine. The BBC would then be required to carry-out an investigation of the facts to determine what the accusations are against their long-standing employee and to make a decision about disciplinary action based on the evidence. E.g. if misconduct, then a disciplinary procedure would normally take place with an evidence-gathering investigation, witness and testimony gathering and a legal meeting held with the employee to discuss the findings.
If misconduct is unfounded, or there is insufficient evidence and testimony to support a claim of misconduct (e.g. witnesses do not wish to pursue the claim, unfounded or wrongful accusations, unproven hearsay, rumour), then the position of the employer (the BBC) is clear – they have a responsibility to perform a fair assessment to gain sufficient evidence to prove that there has been no misconduct. In other words – it is the employer’s responsibility to fully investigate any allegations so that a reasonable view can be made of what has taken place.
MENTAL HEALTH - an employee with mental health issues
All of the above actions can be made more difficult for the employer if the employee is known to be suffering with a mental health condition.
There are many forms of mental health illness, these include depression, phobias, anxiety, personality disorders and stress. With the World Health Organisation estimating that 15% of working-age adults have a mental disorder* then it is going to be quite common that a large employer such as the BBC will encounter employees with mental health issues.
Under the law (The Equality Act 2010), employers in the UK are expected to support their employees through mental health issues and provide wellbeing programmes to support them through episodes of poor mental health to ensure that they are not disadvantaged by their condition. Mental health conditions are categorised as ‘illness’, so employers are legally bound to help their affected employees in their recovery.
As soon as there were no criminal charges in Huw Edwards' case, we saw the national coverage of the story dwindle considerably. News media channels are now picking over the bones of who said what to whom and the timeline of events and facts, rather than accusation and sensationalising elements of the story which had initially been alarmist and shocking. There has been a huge downplay of the illegal nature of the activities.
What happens now?
BBC News as an employer must be fair and supportive of Huw Edwards in his mental health illness. They must offer him support and time to be able to face further questions. It is a double-edge sword as they also need to be seen to be investigating the allegations against him independently rather than sweeping it all under the carpet because of his prominent position as a trusted news presenter. Where there has been an accusation, it needs to be fully and fairly investigated.
Like any employer, the BBC as an organisation must be seen to give support to their BBC News employee during his mental health crisis and they have an obligation to ensure all investigations are carried out and reviewed appropriately and independently of media intrusion, and with care and sensitivity.
Huw Edwards, whose life and career has unravelled in just two weeks, will address the accusations when he is ready to do so but it can’t be too soon, or it could falter his recovery or cause further ill health. All of which will be deeply unnecessary if the accusations are within the bounds of legal and minimal. His personal brand will be dented, but he could return to his job at work if the allegations against him are found to be minor – unwise and poor judgment – as opposed to significant and allegedly criminal. The BBC may choose to reprimand him for inappropriate behaviour rather than dismiss him for gross misconduct. The view of many on social media is supportive and sympathetic of the well-liked BBC news presenter and you must admit the frenzy of the media in the past week or so has been vociferous and relentless against him, at a time when it appears he cannot defend himself properly.
At 61 years old, Huw Edwards may decide to retire to a quieter life without condemnation which could result in a settlement agreement between him and his employer, or he may decide to face the music and his accusers and attempt to restore his dignity, legacy and reputation, either way it will be a testing time for him personally and a testing time for the BBC to be seen to do the right thing for one of their most prominent and well-liked employees.
*World Health Organisation - Mental health at work (who.int)