PRIVACY – Sir Cliff trial continues as Court hears from BBC journalists and editors

The trial of Sir Cliff Richard’s privacy claim against the BBC over its coverage of a South Yorkshire Police raid on his flat in 2014, which began at the High Court on 12 April, has continued with evidence from Sir Cliff himself, and the BBC journalists and editors who were involved in publishing the story.

zoom-in brief has already flagged up the potentially far reaching consequences of the case for media coverage of Police investigations and for the law of privacy more generally, and these have only come into sharper focus as the Court has heard the evidence.

Sir Cliff told the Court on 13 April that he felt “forever tainted” following the BBC’s coverage of the police raid on his home.

Referring to how he saw footage from cameras which could see “right into” his apartment and had recorded officers searching through his belongings when he was on holiday in Portugal, he said: “It wasn’t a very pleasant feeling and by that time I had heard of the allegation and seeing it made me feel even worse.”

When asked about his feelings during the police investigation, Sir Cliff said: “I have found it very disturbing because it is obvious that for moments, if not days, I was not seen as a human being.”
“Everything I had ever lived for seemed to have come to nothing.”

Having heard evidence from witnesses for South Yorkshire Police, as well as further evidence on behalf of Sir Cliff which emphasised the adverse consequences he suffered as a result of the coverage, the Court heard from the BBC journalists and editors who were involved in broadcasting the story, including Dan Johnson, the journalist who broke the story, and Fran Unsworth, the senior executive who signed off on it, who is now the BBC’s director of news and current affairs.

Mr Johnson gave evidence on 18 and 20 April. He said he accepted that Sir Cliff had been upset and distressed by the story but did not feel this was uniquely down to him.

“Obviously South Yorkshire Police were part of that and my colleagues at the BBC who were part of the story as well,” he said.
“I don’t believe I was at fault, I just reported the facts of a story. I am sure the investigation would have been distressing.”

Mr Johnson said he believed the story about the search of Sir Cliff’s home was in the public interest and that he thought his belief was “reasonable”.

When Ms Unsworth gave evidence on 25 April, she told the Judge that the BBC had a responsibility to report but also to be sensitive, and emphasised that the reporting was factually accurate and featured Sir Cliff’s full denial of the allegations as soon as the denial had been issued.”

Ms Unsworth said there was no “blanket legal or editorial rule” banning the naming of people under police investigation. She said the BBC made efforts to offer a “right of reply”.

Ms Unsworth said she regarded privacy issues with the reporting of the raid as an “editorial matter, rather than a legal one”.  She said she had addressed her mind to Sir Cliff’s rights to privacy and realised the story would have a “significant impact” on the singer, so had to “think carefully” about whether the BBC should run it.

She told the court: “I certainly was aware that this would cause serious damage to Sir Cliff, but I had to carefully weigh up on the day what the public interest in doing the story as balanced against that.”

Ms Unsworth said: “Allegations of sexual assault by high-profile individuals in the public eye and the investigation of such allegations are, in my view, public interest matters for news reporting. Media reporting can lead to witnesses coming forward, sometimes to disprove the allegations or sometimes other complainants may come forward.”

She also said images and pictures were “vital” to television news programmes.  “It is crucial that the BBC and other broadcasters can show viewers what is happening, not just tell them,” she said.
Ms Unsworth told the court she “did query” the use of the helicopter and set out strict rules about how any footage obtained from it should be used – including that it should not be broadcast live.
The decision-making process by senior editorial news staff had taken into account what might happen if the BBC did not name Sir Cliff and Ms Unsworth added:

“If the BBC had taken a decision not to report on the activities of South Yorkshire Police and its search of Sir Cliff’s apartment, the BBC would have been open to accusations of sitting on a public interest news item because the subject of the investigation was a well-known figure in the UK who was admired by many.”

The hearing continues and is expected to finish next week. It is likely that the Judge will reserve judgment.