Talkradio presenter James Whale breached broadcasting guidelines in an interview with a journalist that “displayed a significant lack of sensitivity towards victims of sexual assault”, Ofcom has ruled.
The broadcast regulator said Whale’s approach to the woman, who revealed she had recently been sexually assaulted, was liable to discourage other victims from talking publicly about their experiences.
On 30 July last year, Whale (pictured) and his co-presenter Asher Gould hosted a discussion about comments made by author Jilly Cooper claiming the #MeToo movement has left men and women unable to safely flirt.
The journalist spoke unexpectedly about her experience during the broadcast, while on the line as a guest caller. She said police had told her it was unlikely they would be able to identify her attacker as she did not know his name and CCTV is often deleted after 30 days.
Whale told her she should have continued with her police complaint despite the fact they had said they would be unable to help and challenged her over the fact that CCTV was routinely deleted.
The presenter also asked why she had not taken the taxi’s licence number and later added: “Are you not concerned that perhaps unless you did go further with this then this brute could actually do it to other women, and probably will?”
The woman and 37 other people complained to Ofcom about the interview, raising concerns she had been treated “dismissively and insensitively” by the presenters who “victim blamed” her for the assault.
Whale was suspended from Talkradio pending an internal investigation after the woman wrote a Guardian article, in which she was identified, accusing him of interrogating and ridiculing her.
Press Gazette is not naming the woman in accordance with the Sexual Offences Act 2000, which gives lifelong anonymity to victims.
Whale was reinstated after ten days and after “the importance of handling interviews with sensitivity and in compliance with the Ofcom Broadcasting Code, particularly in regard to harm and offence, was stressed to him”, according to today’s Ofcom ruling.
At the start of his first programme back on air on 13 August, Whale read an apology in which he said he was “absolutely devastated that anybody, anyone could actually think that I would act insensitively towards somebody who has been the victim of any kind of sexual assault, any kind of assault at all”.
During Ofcom’s investigation, Talksport, the licensee for Talkradio, part of News UK, acknowledged that “regrettably, there were heated flashpoints during the interview when unfortunate exchanges occurred”.
The first of these was when Whale told the woman she was “very patronising”, Talksport said, adding that “as harsh as this may sound in isolation” his response was a reaction to a comment “which he personally found to be patronising to men”.
Another “flashpoint” came when Whale repeatedly interrupted the woman and told her “it doesn’t really matter what you are, you’re talking as a woman aren’t you?” and that “I’m listening to you rant at me”.
Talksport said this section of the interview was “regrettable” but that it was “arguably no more offensive to either interviewee or the audience than could be seen or heard on a lively edition of Question Time”.
The radio station added that at no time did Whale “in any way cast doubt as to the veracity of [the woman’s] account of being sexually assaulted”.
In response to claims of “victim blaming”, Talksport said the presenters’ incredulity at the deletion of CCTV after 30 days was not aimed at the woman “but at the police for allowing CCTV to be deleted so it would be unavailable to review”.
Talksport admitted that suggestions the guest could have done more to pursue a police investigation appeared “on the face of it to be unwarranted and insensitive” but said they should be placed in the context that the interview then ended “on a positive and amicable note”.
The woman had been offered the chance for another on-air interview “to voice her grievances” but declined, Talksport told Ofcom.
Talkradio has since appointed a full-time editorial compliance manager to assist with “day-to-day decision making around live broadcasts” and support complaints handling.
Ofcom ruled that the interview breached Rule 2.3 of the Broadcasting Code, which says: “In applying generally accepted standards, broadcasters must ensure that material which may cause offence is justified by the context… Appropriate information should also be broadcast where it would assist in avoiding or minimising offence.”
In its ruling, the regulator said: “In our view James Whale, and co-presenter Asher Gould, responded to [the woman’s] disclosure of her sexual assault insensitively, immediately questioning the steps she had taken to report the incident and whether she could have done more to prevent a further assault.
“On several occasions, they put the imperative on her, as a victim, to prevent further assaults.
“We considered that the comments were poorly judged, unsympathetic to [her] own experience, liable to discourage other victims of sexual assault to talk publicly about their experiences, and likely to cause a high level of offence.”
The regulator added that the level of potential offence was increased by Whale’s “additional dismissive and undermining personal comments”, such as accusing the woman of being patronising.
Although Talkradio listeners would have been aware of Whale’s “opinionated and adversarial” presenting style, Ofcom said this was “highly inappropriate” with a contributor who had spoken up about her experience of sexual assault.
“The comments displayed a significant lack of sensitivity towards victims of sexual assault and amounted to a series of questions which focused primary responsibility for finding the perpetrator on [the woman].
“In addition, the way in which James Whale continued to speak to [the guest], in a manner which was abrupt, dismissive, and undermining of her professional integrity, aggravated the potential offence caused in this case.”
Ofcom dismissed Talksport’s comparison with Question Time, saying the political discussion programme designed to place politicians under scrutiny was “not at all comparable with the discussion in this case”.
It also said that Talksport’s argument that the woman was “more than a match” for Whale and “stood her ground and gave as much, if not more, than she got” did not justify the “insensitive and inappropriate behaviour” of the presenters.
Writing in the Guardian today, the woman involved in the interview praised Ofcom for finding “in victims’ and all decent listeners’ favour”.
“After some eight months’ investigation, Ofcom has sent a clear message – that interrogating victims of sexual assault and compelling them to defend themselves and their actions in the aftermath will not be tolerated in mainstream broadcasting,” she wrote.