Why Sir Cliff Richard is right to sue the BBC
To name and to publish background in the way that happened, before the police have even to spoken to him, seems entirely indefensible
The media frenzy surrounding the raid on Sir Cliff Richard’s Berkshire home served to illustrate starkly the futility of the recent Leveson-induced grandstanding and moralising about journalistic and judicial responsibility. To use the current phrase of choice for apologists, no lessons have been learned. It is doubtful any have been spotted.
Talking shops in the Commons are all well and good in their cloistered environs, but in the bright light of day a big story’s a big story and leads to such talking shops being put firmly on hold until the story starts to wither.
This time it might ..just might .. be different. This time the police and the BBC may have started quaffing at David Mellor’s “last chance saloon” for real. (Trivia question … how long ago was that? Answer : 27 years!) As the drama unfolded there were early signs that all the old tricks were in play. These are the tricks unveiled by Leveson, which created no actual surprise for those in the know, but did generate mumbling and stuttering about the duty to be fair from both journalists and the police. Next time.
This is the next time and the failings are evident. And if the reports are true that Sir Cliff really is going ahead and making legal complaints to the BBC and South Yorkshire Police then this is indeed propitious.
Police and press have always worked hand in hand. They have to. That is not going to stop. Neither should it.
However, the race to be first with a headline — a race often regarded more with amusement than excitement by the general punter in these days of all-pervasive news — will always serve to sour that otherwise important relationship.
The blame can be laid fairly and squarely on the step of the judiciary. The laws of libel and contempt of court were drummed into every trained journalist until recent years when the electronic media explosion made everyone a journalist.
Journalistic history is littered with crazy libel outcomes to the point that no-one these days can be absolutely clear what constitutes a libel. It is the judiciary’s attitude towards contempt of court, however, that has really created the unprecedented flock of chickens turning up to roost in recent months.
For years some national papers bent the rules on contempt, particularly with regard to identity and background, attracting no legal action whatsoever. In particular, Sunday papers thrived on it. Bending begat breaking, but still with little action other than reminders from the courts of where the boundaries are. Meanwhile, smaller regional and local papers shook with fear of getting a word in the wrong place and having journalists hauled into the dock.
It was almost as if an elite group was making up its own rules. Television joined that group some years ago when 24 hour news became widespread in the UK. In actual fact we have not moved on far, if at all, in spite of the headline cases like the McCanns, Chris Jefferies, Lord McAlpine et al. Putting aside where the Cliff Richard debacle may go, there are already many questions which need to be answered. They must be asked regardless of the outcome.
Much of the media reported Cliff Richard’s initial statement pointing out that the press had apparently been told of the raid in advance, but concentrating on his apparent gripe that he himself had had no prior warning. It is far more likely he is perfectly aware that warnings of raids are not given in advance for obvious reasons. What concerned him more was how and why the press, and specifically the BBC, knew so many details. Cameras filming the arrival of unmarked police cars and helicopters overhead did not seem to point to the press just striking lucky. And lo and behold, statements quickly started to seep out of a deal between the BBC and police which led each side to accuse the other of behaving inappropriately.
The issue is not whether the BBC were helped by police before Sir Cliff was informed. The issue is why deals are being cooked up at the very start of an investigation. Indeed, before it begins in earnest.
Does it matter? Well, yes it does matter. It strikes at the heart of the relationship between press and police that is absolutely vital but which is in danger of being expunged with new laws to register meetings, cut out hospitality and effectively put an end to any hand-in-hand work which would change the face of our society for the worse.
The judiciary’s propensity to turn a blind eye in the past may well knee-jerk into to a clamp-down on that relationship — and the police and press will only have themselves to blame if the activities around Sir Cliff Richard are anything to go by.
So much of the activity was clearly a charade. The police statement did not mention Sir Cliff by name, which sounded like a schoolboy attempt to show they were playing by the book. And it’s this book that has been discredited over the years.
A raid is to be carried out on a property with an inquiry at a very early stage. The press ‘finds out’. The owner’s name is splashed around the world and the headlines are duly reported.
It was always inconceivable to believe there was no tip-off, unless this raid was so comically blatant as to be a rehearsal for a sequel to Carry On Constable. So this deal between the BBC and police was cobbled together — with consequences that should have been clear to both sides. Why was the name published at this time? Because it is Sir Cliff Richard.
In the past — and here I am going back quite a few years — the police and press have worked very well together. When people were “helping police with inquiries” that was at a very early point in the procedure before possible arrests and charges. The press didn’t storm into a police investigation to start leaking names and background at that stage. And neither should they have done.
Times change, of course, but it must be asked what level of responsibility is being displayed by naming people at this stage of an investigation. The argument that someone else will publish somewhere else is not one that can be used by a responsible press. Trustworthy media is having a big enough battle with internet news without this. The argument that other people might come forward is a trifle fatuous, too, in these particular circumstances, unless the press is happy to create an early open season for comment and allegations which could do nothing other than create obstacles to a fair procedure. This is a police inquiry, not a showbiz gossip story.
If charges are laid against someone then there is every reason to name them, particularly if police think witnesses may come forward as a result. To name and to publish background in the way that happened here, before the police have even to spoken to the named person seems entirely indefensible.
Does it break any laws? There was a little navel-gazing inquiry for the press over the breaking of this story. There may be something more serious ahead. We may find the press desire to get the big headline first and the apparent police desire to share a bit of showbiz stardust will result in a nanny state-style decision to keep them apart. The consequences of that are too miserable to contemplate. They need each other and they should work together at certain times, but where they are heading is a bad, bad place.
Sir Cliff’s action will act as a signpost, ignored by the press at its peril. If — or, it appears, when — Sir Cliff sues, it might just be the case that forces the judiciary to step up to the plate once and for all.