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Cliff Richard wins £210,000 in legal battle with BBC

By | Published on Thursday 19 July 2018

Cliff Richard

Cliff Richard yesterday won his long running legal battle with the BBC over its coverage of a police raid at his Berkshire home back in 2014. However, the broadcaster has already indicated it will appeal the judgement. It argues that the ruling sets a dangerous precedent that could impact on the reporting of police investigations by all British media.

The singer sued both the BBC and South Yorkshire Police over the former’s coverage of the latter’s investigation into claims of sexual abuse that were made against Richard in 2014. The star objected in particular to the broadcaster’s filming of a police raid on his Berkshire property that was conducted as part of that investigation.

It wasn’t only Richard who criticised the BBC’s coverage of the raid, which many saw as being unusually sensationalist for the broadcaster. Its reporting was sufficiently controversial at the time to be reviewed by the Home Affairs Select Committee in Parliament. However, the Beeb hit back and insisted its coverage didn’t break any journalistic rules or breach Richard’s privacy rights.

No charges were made in relation to the allegations of historical sexual assault that had been made against the singer, with the Crown Prosecution Service dropping the case because of insufficient evidence. Meanwhile, Richard went legal claiming that the BBC’s coverage of the case had in fact breached his privacy rights and, in doing so, inflicted “profound and long-lasting” damage on his reputation.

Richard subsequently reached an out of court settlement with South Yorkshire Police. The police force had argued that – while it had liaised with the BBC on its coverage of the raid – that was mainly to stop the broadcaster from reporting on its investigation prior the property search, something it had indicated it might otherwise do.

For a time last year it looked like Richard might also reach a settlement with the BBC, but that wasn’t to be and the case got to court back in April this year, wrapping up in May. In a summary of his judgement published yesterday, judge Anthony Mann stated that: “Cliff Richard succeeds in his claim against the BBC and will receive substantial damages”.

Confirming that his judgement was based on individual privacy rights contained in the Human Rights Act, the judge added: “I find that Sir Cliff had privacy rights in respect of the police investigation and that the BBC infringed those rights without a legal justification. It did so in a serious way and also in a somewhat sensationalist way. I have rejected the BBC’s case that it was justified in reporting as it did under its rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press”.

Mann has awarded Richard £190,000 in general damages and an additional £20,000 in aggravated damages because of the Beeb’s decision to nominate its already controversial coverage of the police raid for the Scoop Of The Year prize at the Royal Television Society’s annual awards (it didn’t win). Additional special damages relating to Richard’s claims that the BBC’s reporting directly caused him financial losses are still to be ascertained, but could add considerably to the overall damages bill.

Needless to say, Richard and his legal team welcomed yesterday’s ruling. Accompanied in court to hear the verdict by his friends Gloria Hunniford and Paul Gambaccini – both current BBC presenters – an emotional Richard told reporters: “I’m choked up. I can’t believe it. It’s wonderful news”. Fans outside the courtroom sang part of the singer’s hit ‘Congratulations’ as he departed.

Subsequently talking to ITV News, Richard said that senior managers at the BBC should be held to account for the infringement of his privacy rights. He told the Beeb’s rival broadcaster: “They have to carry the can. I don’t know how they are going to do it, but they’ll have to. If heads roll then maybe it’s because it was deserved. It’s too big a decision to be made badly. It was nonsense”.

For its part, the BBC again apologised for the distress it may have caused Richard, and added that, with the benefit of hindsight, it now feels that it could and should have handled the story in a different way. However, it then noted that Mann’s ruling suggests that the simple naming of Richard in its report constituted an infringement of the singer’s privacy right. This, the BBC reckons, sets a new precedent that basically changes UK law with regard to the rules around reporting on active police investigations.

The Corporation’s Director Of News And Current Affairs, Fran Unsworth, wrote in response to yesterday’s ruling that: “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”.

She then added: “So even had the BBC not used helicopter shots or run 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. This impacts not just the BBC, but every media organisation”.

There has been much debate over the years regarding whether or not media should name suspects in police investigations who are yet to be charged. The debate is all the more fierce when investigations relate to allegations such as sexual assault, which can severely tarnish an individual’s reputation even if no charges follow. But many media argue that their reporting on police investigations and the people involved can lead to more victims or witnesses coming forward, and therefore ultimately aid the investigation.

In her statement, Unsworth argued that the unhindered reporting of police investigations has other benefits for society at large too. She wrote: “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”.

Concluding, the BBC news chief stated: “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”.

The BBC is likely to be supported by many of its media rivals – including newspapers that are often critical of the Corporation – in its bid to fight this judgement. Sun editor Tony Gallagher called the ruling “shockingly bad” on Twitter, adding that the judgement was a “victory for (alleged) criminals and money-grabbing lawyers” and “terrible for media”.