Rumours had been circulating for weeks about a rift emerging between Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby – long-time co-hosts of ITV’s This Morning, former best friends and powerhouses of British daytime television.
After the rumour mill became untenable, with allegations that the pair were barely speaking, Schofield left first the show and then ITV altogether. The TV couple’s on-screen divorce has rocked British broadcasting.
Last Friday, less than a week after he stood aside from This Morning, Schofield admitted in a letter to the Daily Mail to having had an affair with a much younger colleague. They initially met when this younger colleague was a 15-year-old theatre student. Schofield arranged an interview between him and ITV, who hired him aged 18 as a production assistant.
Schofield has described their relationship as “unwise, but not illegal”, a rather weak defence. No wonder Willoughby has made firm efforts to establish distance. It seems no amount of on-screen charm could recoup such reputational damage.
There are plenty of things we could say about power imbalances, about how a man in his late-50s in a relationship with someone in their late teens is always going to attract attention. We perhaps do not even need to mention the sleaziness of intergenerational workplace relationships either. That it wasn’t illegal is, of course, a hugely important distinction. But perhaps not a career-saving one.
Beyond anything it is stupendously ill-judged.
It is rarely a good idea to embark on a relationship such as this. And it is a much worse idea to lie to your bosses about it (Schofield apparently “repeatedly denied” the affair) and to your closest colleague (“I asked Phil directly if this was true and was told it was not,” Willoughby claims). Schofield also lied to his agent and to journalists about it.
Compounding all these errors of judgment, Schofield took to Instagram to lash out, in a story that deleted itself after 24 hours, at the “same handful of people with a grudge against me or the show”, simultaneously insisting there was “no toxicity”. Hell hath no fury like a TV presenter scorned.
Schofield seemed too beloved and too big to fail. He has weathered mistakes and rocky PR before
Schofield has never demonstrated great judgment. In fact, we might wonder why he wasn’t forced out of This Morning long ago. In 2012, to be precise. Westminster was rived with panic about historic allegations of sexual abuse of minors allegedly committed by leading Conservative politicians (this was found to be untrue).
In a bid to calm the anxious climate, David Cameron appeared on This Morning. Schofield presented the then prime minister with a list of names he’d found on the internet of the alleged Westminster paedophiles, live on air. Cameron rightly rebuked him, Schofield rightly apologised, and the Media watchdog OffCom rightly launched an inquiry. The incident looms large as one of the most embarrassing and foolish lapses in judgment made on screen in Britain. For many it would have been a career-ending error.
Schofield, on the other hand, seemed too beloved and too big to fail. He has weathered mistakes and rocky PR before. ITV investigated the rumours about Schofield and the employee in early 2020, finding no “evidence of a relationship beyond hearsay and rumour”.
This Morning resident doctor Ranj Singh claims “the issues with This Morning go far beyond” Schofield, saying he “took his concerns right to the top of ITV”. Former culture secretary Nadine Dorries said she found Schofield “bullying” towards a stand-in co-host.
An investigation found no evidence of bullying, but that the broadcaster was sorry to hear the allegations. Schofield seems to have plodded on through misjudgment and a deluge of hearsay about his private life and professional conduct for a while now.
So why did it take until now for it all to come crashing down?