BBC boss: We had 'responsibility' to report Sir Cliff Richard allegations against backdrop of Savile failures

The BBC did “the right thing” by revealing that detectives were investigating Sir Cliff Richard and searching his home following a child sex assault allegation, an editor has told a High Court judge.

Gary Smith told Mr Justice Mann that journalists had a responsibility to report such stories.

He said public interest reporting often involved revealing things a famous name would prefer the public did not hear.

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Smith, who was UK news editor for BBC News at the time of the search and is now the corporation’s head of news and current affairs in Scotland, outlined his thoughts on Monday during the latest stage of a High Court trial in London.

Sir Cliff, 77, has sued the BBC over coverage of the South Yorkshire Police search in August 2014 and wants damages at the “top end” of the scale.

He says the coverage, which involved the use of a helicopter, was a “very serious invasion” of his privacy.

The BBC disputes his claims. Bosses say coverage of the search of the apartment in Sunningdale, Berkshire, was accurate and in good faith.

“The BBC was confident we knew who the individual under investigation was,” Smith told the judge.

“From an editorial point of view, those making the decision (myself included) were satisfied as to the accuracy of the BBC’s intelligence and that it was the right thing to do to name Sir Cliff Richard in our reporting – that is to say that it was in the public interest for the BBC as a media organisation to inform the public of the investigation.

“It was our responsibility as journalists to report upon such stories because of the considerable debate going on about whether there had been failings by the authorities in allowing certain public figures to have access to young people and what the authorities and indeed media organisations (including the BBC) knew about certain individuals.

“South Yorkshire Police’s investigation into Sir Cliff Richard was part of a sequence of ongoing significant public interest stories about police investigations into public figures for sexual abuse.”

Smith said the BBC had reported investigations into a number of high-profile figures, including entertainer Rolf Harris, publicist Max Clifford, presenter Paul Gambaccini and comedian Jimmy Tarbuck.

He said those reports had not attracted legal complaints over breach of privacy.

Tarbuck and Gambaccini had been investigated and arrested but not charged, he said, while Harris and Clifford were convicted of sexual offences.

“Sir Cliff Richard would have been the biggest household name to be under investigation,” he said.

“I say this in the sense that he was and is a high-profile public figure whose public status went beyond his success as an entertainer.

“He was known for his charitable work and was ‘part of the establishment’ in many ways.”

Smith said editors had to consider whether it was right to withhold information the BBC had.

“These discussions took place against the backdrop of (the) history of the Jimmy Savile allegations and knowledge within institutions which had not been made public,” he said.

“An important factor in the editorial discussions about naming individuals who were the subject of police investigations was the issue of the media not reporting information it knew to be correct.”

He added: “The BBC could have been accused of not reporting a matter of high public interest because Sir Cliff Richard was a high-profile public figure.”

Smith said: “This was not a matter where we would have sought Sir Cliff‘s consent to run the story. It is obvious he would not have consented.”

Picture: Kirsty O’Connor/PA Wire

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7 thoughts on “BBC boss: We had 'responsibility' to report Sir Cliff Richard allegations against backdrop of Savile failures”

  1. There was no proven case against Savile by the time of his death, Alan. Not sure where you’re getting that from. When the BBC shelved its Panorama, all that existed was a handful of police investigations which had all concluded there was no evidence of any wrongdoing.

    The investigation into Cliff – by dint of police preparing to carry out an unannounced raid on his property and informing the BBC that Cliff would be arrested if he was at the property when they arrived – was already at a more mature and serious stage than any police investigation into Savile had ever reached, rightly or wrongly.

    As the BBC points out, a number of other high profile figures were publicly named by the press as being under investigation, despite not being charged with any offence. They included Gambaccini, Jimmy Tarbuck, Jim Davidson, Harvey Proctor and Lord Bramall.

    There is no rule or law which says a person who has not been charged has a right to anonymity. The BBC reported factually accurate information which it was legally entitled to report, and which all media organisations report about all manner of individuals on a regular basis.

    There had never been a case proven against Harvey Weinstein. Does that mean the media was wrong to report on the handful of unproven allegations which broke that story and led to his downfall?

  2. The BBC is a disgrace. They covered up what Savile did and he was one of their employees. Sir Cliff Richard was not, and indeed is not, a BBC employee. All the BBC wanted was their precious scoop and they didn’t care who they walked over to get it. Also, Sir Cliff being an open Christian, and the BBC hating Christians in general and Sir Cliff in particular, they couldn’t resist. I hope this fiasco costs them millions and then I sincerely hope all the BBC top bosses who were linked with this are sacked and the BBC loses the licence fee.

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