The head of news at BBC Asian Network has been charged under the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 over a live news bulletin in which a reporter allegedly named a victim of the Rotherham sex abuse scandal.
The BBC said the decision to charge Arif Ansari instead of the corporation itself would create a “climate of fear” for editors covering court proceedings in the public interest.
Ansari appeared in court last Tuesday charged with including information in a news report that was likely to identify a person believed to be the victim of a sexual offence.
The BBC confirmed he is pleading not guilty.
The radio broadcast in question took place on 6 February when a reporter “mistakenly” named a sex abuse victim, genuinely believing the name he broadcast was a pseudonym, the corporation said in a statement.
“The error happened once and the BBC took immediate steps to ensure there was no republication,” it added.
“We apologised directly to the individual concerned and to the court. The trial itself was not affected. However, we accept this was a serious mistake. Breaching anonymity is a criminal offence.”
Ansari’s prosecution has been brought under Operation Stovewood, the National Crime Agency’s investigation into child sexual exploitation and abuse in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, between 1997 and 2013.
He is next due to appear at Sheffield Magistrates’ Court on 11 October.
Sexual offence victims receive lifetime anonymity as soon as an allegation is made.
Under the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992, reports related to proceedings must therefore not reveal their name, address or any other detail which may lead to their identification.
The Act says that, for offences committed via a broadcast programme, either the body which “provided” the programme or the person whose function is equivalent to a newspaper editor could be liable.
The previous maximum fine was £5,000, but this limit was removed in 2015.
The Crown Prosecution Service issued Ansari with a written charge and requisition on 3 August, six months after the broadcast in question.
The BBC criticised the decision to charge Ansari as editor of the programme, instead of the corporation itself.
It said: “The CPS, if they choose to prosecute, can charge the corporation and/or the editor.
“We believe that on the facts of this case, it is the BBC itself that should answer in court for this mistake, rather than the individual editor, who if convicted will have a criminal record with all the consequences that flow from that.
“This worrying decision only to prosecute the editor risks creating a climate of fear for editors endeavouring to report court proceeding in the public interest.
“The editor’s legal team have confirmed to the court that he is pleading not guilty to this charge. Needless to say both our editor and our reporter have our full support.”
A CPS spokesperson said it would be inappropriate to comment while court proceedings remain live.
Ansari, 43, became head of news at the Asian Network last year, moving from his role as political editor for the BBC in the north west.