Huw Edwards (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage)

Jumping to conclusions, twice

Morality matters as well as the law

Artillery Row

Is BBC presenter Huw Edwards a perpetrator of toxic masculinity — or the victim of a bigoted, puritanical mob? Last week, tracking down the nameless man who had been removed from air was a short-lived and guilt-free national sport. Now, with Edwards’ admission to hospital and the close of the police investigation into allegations of criminal behaviour, the 61-year-old has been widely cast as suffering and wronged.

Everyone with an iPhone can buy and sell the simulacrum of sex online

Disapproving eyes have been cast at The Sun for suggesting a criminal offence might have been perpetrated. Presenter Kirstie Allsopp was one of many to whinge about the coverage, piously telling her 434,000 followers it was “not working in public or national interest”. Woke foghorn and former tax lawyer Jolyon Maugham declared “shame on all Murdoch titles” for “poisoning our country”. Senior podcaster Jon Sopel claimed it had been a “brutal time” for the presenter, asking, “strip away the criminality and what are you left with?”

The answer is that we are left with a world where people think it is acceptable for an older, powerful and wealthy man to, allegedly, approach much younger adults for his own sexual gratification. We are expected to find compassion and understanding for a public figure who has fallen from grace largely due to his own actions. We are discouraged from thinking about the impact on Edwards’ family, or indeed of the feelings of the youngsters he was accused of exploiting.

Just seven years ago, in the wake of #MeToo, the mainstream liberal press pumped out a very different message. When then 57-year-old senior lawyer Alexander Carter-Silk sent a message on Linked-in to the 27-year-old barrister Charlotte Proudman, calling her profile picture “stunning”, he was publicly shamed. She shared a screenshot of his comments, telling him to “think twice before sending another woman (half your age) such a sexist message”. Some thought this an over-reaction on her part, but it stood as a warning to men in positions of authority to be mindful of personal and professional boundaries. Notably, it also didn’t harm Proudman’s career.

In the intervening years the social, and sexual, script has changed. So long as the magic words “agency” and “consent” are uttered, it seems anything goes. Prostitution has been democratised, opened up to the masses; in theory everyone with an iPhone can buy and sell the simulacrum of intimacy and sex online. Increasing numbers are doing just that.

The pandemic accelerated this grisly trade, and there are now around 210 million users of OnlyFans where typically men pay for explicit content from young women. New forms of commercial sexual exploitation, such the exchange of money between so-called sugar daddies and sugar babies, now barely raise a disapproving eyebrow.

The security to start a family is a distant dream

It’s tempting to see those of i-Gen and below (those born after 1995, who have grown-up with phones in hand) as metaphorically, and indeed sometimes literally, fucked by those of older generations. Before they came of age, the politicians charged with their care abdicated all responsibility for protecting them from pornography or the increasingly obvious harms of social media. Consequently, i-Gen are suffering unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression and loneliness; even suicide has soared.

The damage inflicted on i-Gen is also material. Now young adults, most know they will never be able to afford the stability enjoyed by their parents; they survive in a brutal economic marketplace that offers neither life-long careers nor affordable homes. The security to start a family and buy a house is a distant dream to many of those under thirty, unless they are fortunate enough to have inherited wealth.

Huw Edwards and his fellow top earners at the BBC are unlikely to suffer such uncertainty, or to be in the position where they can only make grim decisions rather than choices. Edwards might be at the top end of earners of his age, yet in addition to his salary of £435,000 he’s enjoyed a long and stable career at the BBC. Meanwhile it is estimated the average monthly income for what are euphemistically called “creators” on OnlyFans is around £150.

Perhaps the outpouring of sympathy for Huw Edwards is because almost all of us have something embarrassing in our personal lives that we would rather not be made public. The shame and humiliation he must be feeling is relatable — let he who is without sin cast their phone to hacks at The Sun. Kirsty Allsopp hinted at this when she tweeted:

Only fans made $900 million last year, 80 per cent of its content is porn. Porn uses up 20 per cent of ALL internet traffic. As I’ve said before, The Sun is taking us all for fools, and we’re pretending we don’t know that sexual images are looked at all the time by billions of people.

This may well be true, but crowds once crushed into stadia to cheer on slaves who were forced to fight to the death, and spectators used to bring picnics to public executions. The dark side of human nature is nothing new, but that doesn’t make it moral.

What Edwards is accused of might well be legal, and those accusing him may well be hypocrites, but that doesn’t mean that sexual and power imbalances don’t matter. There are many more worthy recipients of our sympathy.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover