Thursday, 19 July 2018

The BBC's Coverage of Cliff Richard Was Wrong. But They Had Every Right to Cover the Story

The judgement about the BBC's absurdly over the top coverage of the police investigation into Sir Cliff Richard was both right and wrong at the same time. But mostly it was wrong. It is entirely understandable that Cliff Richard sought redress this way and yet it is regrettable at the same time. In the end the judge extended the already problematic area of privacy law in an unacceptable way. This is something that politicians, who created this problem, need to address urgently.

The judge was of course right that the BBC's coverage of the police searching Sir Cliff's home was sensationalist. Even at the time it struck the viewer as wrong. The BBC got wind of the search and couldn't resist an exclusive. Nobody wondered if it was the right thing to do, nobody wondered if they should cover it more responsibly. They had a scoop and that was the end of the matter. And so they went all out. They had a helicopter hover above the home of the singer and a reporter standing outside intoning about this shocking turn of events. But Cliff wasn't there, had no idea what was happening, the police hadn't arrested him or questioned him. They never have.

But quite what this has to do with the law is a mystery. The editorial judgements of editors, be they in red top tabloids or supposedly august national broadcasters, are of no concern to our judiciary. In America, where they have constitutional protections, this would be sacrosanct. Here, thanks to our idiot politicians who were warned about this when they passed the Human Rights Act, and an increasingly proactive judiciary, the press is being attacked once again via the back door and in a way that ought to alarm us all. The judiciary constantly eschew the opportunity to change the law vis a vis assisted dying, averring, correctly, that this is a matter for parliament. Well so is privacy and the rights of the press to publish and be damned.

It is one thing to disapprove of the BBC's coverage of Sir Cliff and it is quite another to say that what they did was illegal. That is dangerous. It is also dangerous, as some have suggested, to have a ban on the reporting of those being investigated by the police. Imagine the possible repercussions of that in the wrong hands. People can be protected as well as their reputation damaged by news that they are under police investigation. But it is news. It is a fact that the press have every right and even a responsibility to report. It is just best if they don't turn it into salacious entertainment. Christopher Jefferies, the victim of savage press reports when he was questioned by the police over the murder of his tenant Joanne Yeates, was on Newsnight last night arguing that those merely being questioned should be anonymous. It is understandable that he should think so, but it is also wrong. The press behaved appallingly where he was concerned, but they libelled him. The fact that he was arrested by the police but never charged was a fact. The rest of it was the press labelling an innocent man simply because he was unconventional. Disgusting, but actionable. He won substantial damages and fulsome apologies. That is as it should be. But the fact that he had been arrested by the police and was being investigated for murder was news.

It tends to be forgotten now but it's only a few years ago since we were all up in arms about the judiciary granting injunctions to stop the press reporting factual stories about celebrities sexual peccadilloes, from the dalliances of footballers to a pop star and his husband who had tawdry sex with strangers. I am still not allowed to tell you who they are in the UK, even though everyone knows. That is the state of our ridiculous privacy laws. Now the judge in the Cliff Richard case has made them more ridiculous still. He is effectively trying to extend sub judice laws to protect those merely under investigation. Being a subject of interest or investigation is, I'm sure, an unpleasant and uncomfortable experience. But the fact of that investigation is something that the press are entitled to report. Any extension of the right to privacy should be by primary legislation and not by judicial intervention.

All of this happened because of the aftermath of the Savile affair, with the police and even the BBC seeking to redress their earlier failings. There has been a succession of men accused in the way that Cliff Richard was, usually celebrities or well known successful people, some have been found guilty of crimes and sent to prison and some have been vindicated and never even charged as Cliff Richard was. That is the way our criminal justice system works. It can sometimes be brutal and savage, but silencing the press from reporting it in action is a deeply retrograde step.

The BBC should therefore appeal this ruling, not because they were right in the way they covered this story, but because they had every right to report the story. This was not an example of fake news. Just bad news judgement.

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