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Sun newspaper made ‘terrible error’ in not publishing BBC presenter’s name, says former editor

The Sun newspaper has made a “terrible error” by not publishing the name of the accused BBC star or providing evidence of its claims, according to a former editor of the paper.

Kelvin MacKenzie, who edited the tabloid from 1981 to 1994, said the paper looked “weak” over failing to detail claims behind its explosive allegations.

The BBC has suspended the unnamed individual, who is alleged by The Sun to have made payments of £35,000 to a teenager in exchange for sexually explicit images.

The young person, now 20, sent a denial to the tabloid saying the story was “totally wrong and there was no truth in it” – but the young person’s lawyers said: “The Sun newspaper proceeded to publish their inappropriate article.”

Mr MacKenzie told i: “They made a terrible error. They should have named them and got on with it. The BBC would have sacked the person in a heartbeat and the story would have all been over by Sunday morning.

“It’s now drifting on and it looks like either weakness or that The Sun got it wrong. They didn’t get it wrong, but they were weak.”

The paper has published claims from the mother of the young person claiming bank statements show payments totalling thousands from the BBC star, as well as messages between the two parties of a sexual nature.

It has so far not published the evidence, however. Instead, on Tuesday it backed up its original claims with an insistence from the mother and stepfather of the young person.

Past And Present Editors Of The Sun Newspaper Give Evidence To The Leveson Inquiry
Former Sun newspaper editor Kelvin Mackenzie (Photo: Getty)

While the alleged name has been widely speculated about online, the paper has not suggested it will reveal the identity of the presenter.

“Unless an MP decides to do this, I don’t believe the bloke will be named. In a funny way you feel as though that moment is gone,” Mr MacKenzie said.

“And yet I don’t think I’ve met anybody who doesn’t know who it is. It’s a bizarre scene where mainstream media doesn’t print it, and yet there’s nobody in the world doesn’t seem to know who it is.”

He rejected the argument that issues of privacy would prohibit the naming of the man, given the evidence the outlet claims to hold.

He said: “[If the allegations are correct], The Sun made the error of not naming the person. There’s no question of privacy. This is a straightforward question of an employee doing something you’re not proud of.

“Anyone working in Marks and Spencer, if the same thing happened, the person would be out in half an hour. What’s astonishing is that the BBC hasn’t done that.”

Mr MacKenzie’s own stewardship of the tabloid was notorious – he was editor at the time of the Hillsborough disaster, when the paper falsely accused drunken fans of pickpocketing victims, for which he later apologised.

During this time, the paper was also known for its pursuit of celebrity gossip and sexual misdemeanours by public figures.

But those days are over, he believes, in the face of falling print circulation and advertising boycott threats.

The Sun feels vulnerable with all the issues in the High Court involving the potential hacking. It’s dominated financially by it and they spend all their time trying not to run stories that could cause them a problem,” the paper’s former boss said.

“The whole point of journalism is causing problems. If you can’t do that, you’re in the wrong game. My sense is that global companies should not own tabloid products now.

“The tabloid management and tabloid editors are hiding in a cave and the best thing to do with it is just to sell The Sun, or axe the print edition.”

David Yelland, who edited the paper from 1998 to 2003, questioned whether it broke the BBC story too early.

Speaking to Jon Sopel and Emily Maitlis on the Newsagents podcast, Mr Yelland said he was “surprised” at the short length of The Sun’s front-page story about the BBC presenter paying for explicit images, adding: “I thought, ‘Is that all they [the newspaper] did?’”

“It’s almost as if they [The Sun] were unprepared to do it [the story] at that time. Maybe there was competitive pressure from another newspaper that they thought had the story. And then when you read the story – if I was still editing The Sun, there were question marks that I would have about the story, which is where are the bank statements?

“Because there’s a mention of bank statements but I’m not seeing the bank statements in the paper. So you can rag out – and that means printing something and ragging out the edges, so that’s what they [often] do. They make it look good [like a real bank statement while preserving anonymity].”

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