Cliff Richard's court victory 'a threat to press freedom'
BBC vows to fight after singer's privacy case victory sparks fears it will spawn a law to gag the media
British Prime Minister Theresa May has warned that suspects must not be given blanket anonymity in the wake of a landmark ruling that the BBC breached Sir Cliff Richard’s privacy.
Justice Mann ordered that the corporation pay the entertainer £210,000 in damages for broadcasting of a police raid on his home in relation to allegations of historic child sex offences. The BBC is looking at appealing the case since it could have a chilling effect on press freedom in Britain, with legal experts saying the decision is a further step towards a privacy law that will stop the media from naming suspects in all but exceptional cases.
But Richard said he would “fight to the death” against what he described as the “abuse of the freedom of speech”.
He said: “I’d rather 10 guilty people get away with it than one innocent person suffer. There is no reason for that.”Campaigners and some MPs have called on the government to go even further by introducing “Cliff’s law”, banning the press from naming suspects until they have been charged.
When asked if she would consider such a law, the prime minister said: “This is a difficult issue, it does have to be dealt with sensitively.
“There may well be cases where actually the publication of a name enables other victims to come forward and therefore to strengthen the case against an individual.”
Justice Mann, sitting at the High Court in London, criticised the coverage in Richard’s case as “sensationalist”, saying: “Knowing that Sir Cliff was under investigation might be of interest to the gossipmongers, but it does not contribute materially to the genuine public interest in the existence of police investigations in this area.”
The judge awarded Richards £190,000 to cover the “general effect” on his life plus £20,000 because the BBC had aggravated the damage by nominating the story for scoop of the year. Lawyers say the 77-year-old singer could get more when the judge decides at a later stage of litigation how badly he has been left out of pocket. Richards says the case has cost him £4-million.The BBC will have to pay 65% and South Yorkshire Police, which admitted liability at an earlier hearing, 35%.
Richards had sued the BBC over broadcasts of a raid on his home in Sunningdale, Berkshire, in August 2014, following a child sex assault allegation alleged to have taken place at a Billy Graham rally at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane football stadium in 1985. He strenuously denied the allegations and was never arrested or charged.
After the ruling, Fran Unsworth, the director of news at the BBC, said they were looking at appealing the decision because of the “significant principle” at stake.She said: “This judgment creates new case law and represents a dramatic shift against press freedom and the longstanding 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.”
In an interview with ITV, Richards said he wanted BBC bosses to take responsibility for the coverage, and that “if heads roll then maybe it’s because it’s deserved”.He said his life had been shattered and he had suffered ill health. “I’m sure I’ll recover. There are aspects in my life I recognise now for instance. In Wimbledon there is a tunnel between Centre Court and Court One.
“I used to use it regularly to go and see the matches I was interested in on Court One and it went right past the ball boys’ dressing room. I won’t go there now. I won’t go anywhere near children. Why? I’ve spent my whole life hugging people’s grandchildren. But because of this thing now ... There’s aspects of my life now even when I’m having photographs taken I try not to make contact.”
– © The Daily Telegraph