GEORGE LEWIS EASTON

Harry and Meghan, Kobe Bryant, and before them the former MP Harvey Proctor, broadcaster Paul Gambuccini and journalist Patrick Foster are people. They are targeted by reporters and editors on the look-out for news to satisfy the curiosity of mass media consumers and ensure commercial viability and audience growth. One would think this was limited to profit-driven media players. However, in the case addressed here, Sir Cliff took the BBC to court after the public broadcaster filmed a police raid on his Berkshire apartment on 14 August 2014. The footage, which included aerial shots taken from a helicopter, was shown on news bulletins throughout the day. Officers were then investigating an allegation made by a man who claimed he had been sexually assaulted by the singer in 1985 at a Billy Graham concert. But the singer was never arrested or charged and the case was finally dropped in 2016. BBC World Service lifer Owen Bennett-Jones sheds light on this issue in a substantial piece on the state of the BBC: ‘Can’t afford to tell the truth: trouble at the BBC’ (The London Review of Books, 20 December 2018).

An Englishman’s home is no longer a castle – even when, in Cliff Richard’s case, it is!

Geoffrey Robertson QC published an article in The Independent in 2014. Entitled ‘The way the police have treated Cliff Richard is completely unacceptable’, it claimed: ‘’By treating Cliff Richard as though he were a bank robber or a mass murderer, the police from Thames Valley and South Yorkshire, aided and abetted by the BBC and a Sheffield lay justice, have blasted his reputation around the world without giving him the first and most basic right to refute the allegation… This is in itself an interesting example of how historic English liberties – the rule against ‘general search warrants’ achieved by John Wilkes in the 18th century – are now ignored… Here the police searched for five hours and took whatever they wanted. This behaviour is unacceptable. The lay justice system has long been the Achilles heel of our civil liberties: many of these amateurs simply rubber stamp police requests. It is not known who issued this warrant (although the High Court has held that the identities of JPs should be made public). Robertson concedes « that does not necessarily mean that a prosecution is unjustified, especially in the case of those in positions of authority (priests, teachers, politicians, etc.) but it does require extra vigilance by law enforcement authorities to ensure that those under investigation do not have their names prematurely besmirched, and above all be given a fair opportunity to refute allegations before they are brought to court. » But he concludes: « the police behaviour here is also in plain breach of the privacy provisions of article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights. This case involves good old English civil liberties, laid down not 25 years but 250 years ago, in the course of a battle between John Wilkes and the government of George 111. The Chief Justice then declared that an Englishman’s home was his castle – which must come as news to the South Yorkshire and Thames Valley police! »

The price of fame since ‘it’s all in the game’!

Matthew Parris wrote in The Spectator in June 2016. ‘How hard would it have been not to traduce Cliff Richard?’ ‘‘Harder, sadly, than many commentators seem to think!’’ he replied after showing the absurdity of the police and Crown Prosecution Service in triggering a protracted distressful experience for the singer. « Much of the disquiet we feel boils down to two complaints. First, that it’s cruel and wrong for the police to name individuals unless and until they’ve been charged. Secondly, that when it is decided that no charges will be brought, the preferred phrase ‘insufficient evidence’ still seems to leave a stain on the individual’s reputation… Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? » (Who will keep watch over the guards themselves?). He concluded: « if we cannot rely on the police to abide by their own rules, there’s no sure-fire way we can protect the privacy of those who may be interviewed but not charged ». It is – as Cliff Richard must ruefully regret – the price of fame. As he sang in his 1963 hit, ‘It’s all in the game.’

How and why did it come to this?

It started with a police raid in open daylight, which looked like a sensational move in connivance with a BBC reporter who did not act alone. Footage from a helicopter showing the police in action was broadcast live. Sir Cliff’s name was mentioned. He was not there. He received a call at his Portugal home from the keeper. Through his lawyer Sir Cliff told the police he was available for any enquiry, denying any wrongdoing. In due course he sued the police and the BBC after asking them to apologise for invading his privacy and besmirching his name. The police did but the BBC was defiant, claiming the right to freedom of information. Meanwhile, as early as September 2014 a House of Commons home affairs committee chaired by Labour MP Keith Vaz, heard David Crompton, the chief constable of South Yorkshire; Tony Hall – the BBC director general; James Harding – director of news and current affairs; Gary Smith – the UK news editor at the time and now head of news at BBC Scotland and Ms Unsworth, who gave final approval for the story. MPs said Crompton showed a « gross lack of competence » for doing a controversial « sweetheart deal » with the BBC. In 2016 Sir Cliff was exonerated of the accusation of child molestation. In the meantime, the South Yorkshire Police tendered their apology for the « distress » caused to Sir Cliff and offered compensation. In July 2018 the singer won a High Court case against the broadcaster over the coverage. According to Justice Mann in his 200-page judgement, while reporter Dan Johnson who broke the whole story was « not dishonest » but let his « enthusiasm get the better of him », Gary Smith was « obsessed » with scooping rivals which « probably affected some of his judgement » at the time of coverage and Ms Unsworth was also, but to a lesser extent, « affected by the desire to protect the scoop » at the time.

The judgement

The High Court judge Mr Justice Mann wrote that a suspect in a police investigation « has a reasonable expectation of privacy » and while Sir Cliff being investigated « might be of interest to the gossip-monger », there was not a « genuine public interest » case. The BBC was ordered to pay ₤210,000 in damages (including ₤20,000 in aggravated damages after it even submitted its coverage of the raid for an award).Thus the BBC had to pay 65% of the ₤190,000 and South Yorkshire Police, which carried out the raid, 35%.  The BBC later agreed to pay ₤850,000 to cover legal costs. South Yorkshire Police had earlier agreed to pay Sir Cliff ₤400,000 after settling a claim he brought against the force.  Further, in September 2019 the BBC apologised for the « distress » caused to the singer and paid ₤2m in final settlement after the privacy case. It said it was « pleased » to have reached an « amicable settlement ». It also disbursed ₤315,000 to South Yorkshire Police for legal costs. Sir Cliff had spent ₤4 million on his case.

« Hung out like live bait » in order to attract further allegations

Sir Cliff said « It’s hard to explain to people what it feels like. I only went back to that apartment once, to collect my clothes. It was worse than being burgled. » The allegations and subsequent media coverage were surely the worst thing that had happened to him in his entire life. « What the BBC did was an abuse. Senior executives at the corporation deserve to lose their jobs. They took it upon themselves to be judge, jury and executioner. » He reckoned he was « still out of pocket » as his plans for « professional work » were seriously disrupted after the coverage.

Owen Bennett-Jones’ take on the matter

He is straightforward. « BBC managers are unsackable. In the recent judgement on the Cliff Richard case, besides criticising the rationale behind broadcasting the story in the first place (which, typically enough, was in part to avoid criticism for not broadcasting it), the judge found that the UK news editor was not a reliable witness and that the head of newsgathering had ‘almost wilfully’ failed to ‘acknowledge inconsistencies’ in the BBC case. He observes that both still hold senior positions. « Had named executives in the Murdoch empire faced such sharp judicial criticism, BBC presenters would have been asking why there had been no resignations… »

Conclusion

These are pertinent questions which relate to how, among other things, the hunt for scoops amidst fierce competition from the big new media players is challenging venerable public institutions. Is the licence fee a boon or a curse? Should an alternative (e.g. subscription) be envisaged to ensure independence from politicians? Des Freeman, ‘Democratise the BBC!’ (The London Review of Books, 23 January 2020) writes: « With the resignation of Tony Hall as director general, there is talk of an ‘existential crisis’ at the BBC…The UK should reform the television licence fee not because it is a poll tax but because it is technologically obsolete… »