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The firing brigade

How should a media boss react when an employee is accused of a crime? Whatever he does, he risks trouble, says Tim Luckhurst

Now that the euphoria of his acquittal has subsided, John Leslie may be forgiven for doubting the accuracy of the judge's declaration that he left court "without a single stain on his character". The smear and innuendo to which he has been subjected since Matthew Wright identified him as Ulrika Jonsson's alleged rapist in a live TV broadcast last October has cost Leslie his job and his livelihood. His vindication and the award of costs in his favour can never entirely compensate for the misery inflicted on him.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, has called for a parliamentary inquiry into whether rape defendants should be given anonymity to protect them from "trial by media". But would anonymity provide protection? Would it have prevented Leslie's dismissal, or stopped colleagues and potential employers in the TV industry discussing and believing the allegations made against him?

One television presenter says, "It is a problem. Someone fabricates an accusation of assault against you because she sniffs the chance to get her face known. You shouldn't have to prove it's not true - that's not supposed to be the way justice works - but the channel wants proof. If it gets out, ratings may take a hit. In those cases, it is too easy just to take you off screen."

A board member of a British media group explains, "It is cruel. Absolute truth is not your only concern. You have to juggle potential damage to the show, the ratings and the company against questions of natural justice. It would be naive not to acknowledge that such allegations can be fabricated. But that doesn't stop customers believing them. You have to consider the effect of that."

Mike Emmott, an adviser on employee relations at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, agrees that media companies face special difficulties. "Most employers are cautious about taking disciplinary action against an employee until a criminal case is resolved, but a media employer is under unique pressures. There is more at stake than legality. Reputations damage quickly.The time it takes to bring such a case to trial may be too long to wait. Its business could be damaged by the allegations."

John Fray, the deputy general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, acknowledges that media employers must consider their viewing figures, but for him justice takes precedence. Fray argues that in Leslie's case "suspension would have been more sensible. The fact that people in these jobs are so vulnerable does put an added onus on the employer to think about how to protect them."

That is not easy. When I was a newspaper executive, an allegation of serious misconduct was made against one of my correspondents. The correspondent swore it was false, and I was inclined to believe that. But I was certain it would damage the standing of the title if it became public. I sent the correspondent home and made urgent enquiries. I was lucky. Proof emerged quickly that the allegation was false. What should I have done if the story had reached the public domain before I had the evidence with which to disprove it?

The editor of The Observer, Roger Alton, says, "Of course you have a legitimate interest in protecting your title, but to do that you have to conduct your own inquiry. I would suspend, offer help and reach a final conclusion only when the full facts had been established."

ButEmmott says a media company confronted by lurid allegations about a household-name presenter does not have that luxury. Ratings, revenues and public trust are susceptible to immediate damage. Sacking becomes an option.

John Leslie is not the first media face to discover the consequences of that logic. He will not be the last. Legally and morally, his vindication is complete, but that is no guarantee that other media employers will not move to end the careers of other stars against whom equally spurious allegations are made in future. Share prices can respond quickly to callous damage-limitation. There are tough chief executives in television-land who regard sacking a presenter who has become a liability as a fiduciary duty, not a grave injustice - whether the accused is guilty or not.