Sir Cliff Richard has said serious questions should be asked about the BBC’s “focus on preserving their exclusive story” at the expense of his rights after he won his privacy battle against the corporation today.
The 77-year-old singer was awarded £210,000 in damages over the BBC’s “somewhat sensationalist” coverage of a police investigation into a historical child sex assault made against him.
- November 25, 2021
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Speaking after the verdict, Sir Cliff said: “I’m choked up. I can’t believe it.”
Sir Cliff took legal action against the BBC over its broadcast, including footage taken from a helicopter, of a raid on his home in Sunningdale, Berkshire by South Yorkshire Police on August 2014.
It was announced in 2016 that Sir Cliff, who always denied the allegation, would face no charges.
During the two-month trial, Sir Cliff told the court that the BBC’s coverage had been a “very serious invasion” of his privacy and that he wanted damages at the “top end” of the scale.
Giving his judgement at the High Court today, Mr Justice Mann said Sir Cliff had privacy rights in respect to the police investigation and that the BBC infringed those rights without a legal justification.
He also rejected the BBC’s case that it was justified in reporting the raid under its rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
However he did not rule on Sir Cliff’s claim that by disclosing the details of the investigation and reporting the raid the BBC had breached his rights under the Data Protection Act 1998, saying it was not necessary as the singer had established liability on the privacy point.
Mr Justice Mann awarded a total of £210,000 in damages to Sir Cliff, with more set to be determined at a later hearing to reflect the financial impact on the singer.
Awarding general damages of £190,000, the judge said: “I have found that this was a serious infringement of Sir Cliff’s privacy rights, in terms of what was disclosed, in terms of the manner of disclosure and in terms of the effect on Sir Cliff.”
He awarded Sir Cliff an additional £20,000 in aggravated damages for the fact the BBC had put its story up for the Scoop of the Year category at the Royal Television Society Awards in 2015, although it did not win.
The total liability for damages, not including aggravated damages, is to be divided up 35 per cent to 65 per cent between the police force and the BBC respectively. The judge said the broadcaster was “a significantly greater contributor to the damage that was caused”.
South Yorkshire Police has already paid £400,000 in damages after agreeing to settle a claim with Sir Cliff.
The judge said South Yorkshire Police had not volunteered the information to the BBC for its own purposes, but that “it provided it because of a concern that if it did not do so there would be a prior publication by the BBC, a concern known to and probably fostered by the BBC’s reporter, Mr Dan Johnson”.
In a statement outside court today, the Summer Holiday singer’s lawyer, Gideon Benaim of law firm Simkins, said his client was “very pleased” with the judgement.
He added: “The case clearly confirms that individuals, including high profile ones, have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to police investigations.”
Benaim said Sir Cliff had wanted the BBC to acknowledge that “what it had done to him” was unlawful and that the singer “would have been reasonable” in relation to damages if the corporation had done this and apologised before legal proceedings began.
“Not only did they refuse to apologise but they were defiant, repeatedly telling the world that this was public interest journalism, when it was not.”
Benaim added: “Given the adverse findings of fact by the judge, serious questions ought to be asked about the BBC’s focus on preserving their exclusive story at the expense of Sir Cliff’s rights, as well as how the BBC came to advance such a factual case, including to the Home Affairs Select Committee in 2014.
“Additionally, whether senior executives exercised sufficient scrutiny over the activities of their journalist, and in approving and signing the BBC’s defence.”
In his full judgement, Mr Justice Mann said BBC reporter Johnson was “like any responsible reporter, anxious to get knowledge of, and become involved in, big stories, and in my view was anxious to make a bit of a name for himself by getting this story”.
He also said Gary Smith, then the BBC’s UK news editor, was one of the journalists who “became very concerned (I am tempted to use the word ‘obsessed’) with the merits of scooping their news rivals”.
The judge said then BBC News deputy director Fran Unsworth’s actions and thinking on the day of the broadcast were also “affected by the desire to protect the scoop”. Unsworth is now the BBC’s head of news.
The BBC has maintained that its journalists acted in good faith and said it is considering an appeal.
The allegation against Sir Cliff centred on an incident in the 1980s at a Billy Graham evangelist rally in Sheffield involving a boy under the age of 16.
The investigation was handed from the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Yewtree to South Yorkshire Police in June 2014.
On 9 June Johnson received a tip-off about the investigation from a confidential source associated with, but not part of, Operation Yewtree.
About a month later he told South Yorkshire Police’s head of corporate communications Carrie Goodwin that he knew about the investigation into Sir Cliff. She later decided, along with Det Supt Matthew Fenwick and a Chief Con David Crompton, to co-operate with the BBC in order to stop it publishing a story early that might prejudice the investigation.
Johnson met Goodwin and Fenwick on 15 July and was told he would be given advance notice of the search of Sir Cliff’s home.
The judgement states: “The SYP case is that they felt pressurised into making that offer in order to prevent Mr Johnson publishing a story prior to the search, thereby potentially compromising it.
“The BBC’s case is that the information was provided voluntarily, and indeed it goes further in that it was said that the BBC was essentially its ‘messenger’ to get information about the investigation into the public domain.”
After the date of the raid was pushed back, Johnson was eventually told on 13 August that it would take place the following day and preparations began, including a plan to use a helicopter, which is shared with ITN on the agreement the two share all footage of “breaking news”.
The BBC did not tell its rivals about the Sir Cliff story.
On the day of the raid, BBC researcher Bernadette Kitterick made efforts to contact Sir Cliff’s PR representative as soon as it had been confirmed that the police had gained entry to the property. She spoke to him just after 11.15am.
The BBC then broke the story on the One O’Clock News bulletin before any statement had been given by Sir Cliff’s representatives, who then prepared a press statement urgently which was released about an hour later.
Sir Cliff’s PR representative, Philip Hall, said he had not been told the BBC had put a helicopter up to cover the story and told the court that if he had he would have realised the seriousness of the planned coverage and would have immediately contacted lawyers to investigate getting an injunction.
Mr Justice Mann said the BBC “did not quite comply with what it itself saw
as the ethical requirements of its journalism” ahead of the 1pm broadcast.
“The real reason for that was, in my view, because it was giving a lot of weight, in its own deliberations, to preserving the exclusivity of its own scoop,” he added.
“The material at trial demonstrated not only that people were very excited at the prospect of this scoop, but also that they were very keen to preserve it as their own.
“The latter point is demonstrated by a number of things, including the very questionable (in contractual terms) exclusion of ITN from knowledge of the launch of the helicopter and the fear, expressed in emails, that Sky News might pick up the event.
“I think and find it likely that this is what motivated the BBC in relation to timing at the end of the chain of events. It was important, if possible,
to get the news to broadcast for 1pm (ITN would have a lunchtime broadcast at 1.30pm), rather than waiting any longer.
“That led the BBC to truncate, unfairly, the opportunity for Sir Cliff to get in a reply before the first broadcast.
“I emphasise that I am not finding that there is anything inherently wrong with a desire to beat a rival to a story. What happened in this case was that that view unduly skewed other judgments that had to be made.”
South Yorkshire Police Chief Con Stephen Watson said in a statement that he fully accepted the judgement.
He said: “I particularly welcome Mr Justice Mann’s findings that all South Yorkshire Police officers and staff were found to have acted entirely honestly and were credible and reliable witnesses.
“At a very early stage of these proceedings, we accepted and apologised to Sir Cliff Richard for the mistakes we made in our attempts to protect the integrity of the police investigation and the rights of the complainant, balanced against Sir Cliff Richard’s privacy rights.
“I would like to take this opportunity to again offer our sincere apologies for the distress Sir Cliff Richard has suffered.”
In a statement, read out after the hearing, BBC News director Fran Unsworth said: “We are sorry for the distress that Sir Cliff has been through. We understand the very serious impact that this has had on him.
“We have thought long and hard about how we covered this story. On reflection there are things we would have done differently, however the judge has ruled that the very naming of Sir Cliff was unlawful.
“So even had the BBC not used helicopter shots or ran the story with less prominence, the Judge would still have found that the story was unlawful; despite ruling that what we broadcast about the search was accurate.
“This judgment creates new case law and represents a dramatic shift against press freedom and the long-standing ability of journalists to report on police investigations, which in some cases has led to further complainants coming forward.
“This impacts not just the BBC, but every media organisation.
“This isn’t just about reporting on individuals. It means police investigations, and searches of people’s homes, could go unreported and unscrutinised.
“It will make it harder to scrutinise the conduct of the police and we fear it will undermine the wider principle of the public’s right to know. It will put decision-making in the hands of the police.
“We don’t believe this is compatible with liberty and press freedoms – something that has been at the heart of this country for generations.
“For all of these reasons, there is a significant principle at stake. That is why the BBC is looking at an appeal.”
Picture: Victoria Jones/PA Wire