Sir Cliff awaits judgment on battle with BBC
Sir Cliff Richard’s court battle with the BBC will now be considered by a judge for several weeks after his legal team asked for damages at “the top end of the scale” in its closing argument.
The singer is suing the BBC over their coverage of the police raid of his home in 2014, in which they were investigating historical allegations of sexual abuse.
Sir Cliff’s legal team told the court it was a “gross invasion of his privacy” and the 77-year-old sustained “possibly permanent damage to his self-esteem, standing and reputation” and is asking for damages and fees of £600,000.
Sir Cliff previously said the case had already cost him £3.4m.
The BBC says its coverage of the story was in the public interest and its reporting was fair and accurate.
BBC bosses, including director of news Fran Unsworth, argued the context post-Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile was vital in weighing up Sir Cliff’s privacy rights with their duty to report a police investigation of this significance in the public interest.
They said they simply could not have sat on a story of this magnitude.
In August 2014, viewers around the world tuned in to live BBC news reports from outside the singer’s Berkshire home as helicopter footage of the search was broadcast.
Sir Cliff Richard was never arrested or charged.
He watched in shock, he said, from his home in Portugal. His friend Gloria Hunniford told Sky News: “I actually rang Cliff and said are you watching TV because this is just unbelievable.”
Hunniford wrote a heartfelt witness statement describing the pain Sir Cliff had experienced as a result of the broadcast.
Close friend Mike Read, who wrote a number of songs for Sir Cliff, told Sky News: “You can see that pain and anguish, it’s really taken its toll and he feels it’s probably tarnished, despite being untrue, a terrific career. And how can you pay for that? You can’t.”
The BBC has apologised to Sir Cliff, but told the court it had a responsibility to broadcast what was a massive story.
This case could have broader ramifications for the freedom of news media, potentially setting a precedent over how journalists report on police investigations, having perhaps the biggest impact on the media since the Leveson inquiry.
Some media analysts say regardless of how you judge the BBC’s use of a helicopter to gather pictures of the raid, or level of sympathy with Sir Cliff, the law is on the side of the BBC as the media must be allowed to report the facts.
“It’s a matter of public interest the police were investigating, there was no inaccuracy. They didn’t pretend that the police were investigating Cliff Richard, we actually saw them in his house,” said Jane Martinson, a Guardian columnist and media lecturer at City University.
“If the BBC loses this case that could have enormous ramifications for other media outlets and their ability to do their job.”
The BBC’s QC said Sir Cliff Richard’s huge celebrity profile – and use of it to promote his books, merchandise and religious beliefs – reduced his privacy rights.
Sir Cliff Richard’s profile is undeniably relevant in this case. Having sold more singles in the UK than any other British artist except Elton John and The Beatles, with hits in every decade for 60 years, he is regarded by millions of fans as a national treasure.
The relationship between the star and the BBC goes back to the birth of his career, as they broadcast many of his early TV performances in the 1960s and 1970s.
Sir Cliff said the longevity of the relationship made him feel all the more betrayed and forever tainted by the BBC – an institution he trusted.
South Yorkshire Police, which tipped off the BBC about the raid, has already paid £400,000 in damages to Sir Cliff in an out of court settlement.
The police now wants the BBC to pay part of that sum, saying it was the BBC’s coverage that did most damage.
The BBC’s lawyer Gavin Millar QC said in his closing submissions that if South Yorkshire Police had not disclosed the information “we would not have broadcast the story”.
BBC reporter Dan Johnson was given the details of the raid by South Yorkshire Police, which claimed in court that its hand was forced by him, but the BBC denies that was the case.
Mr Millar told the court: “This is such an important case for the right to report and (if the BBC lost it) would have very serious consequences for journalists reporting these kinds of things in the future.”
The BBC said they could not have sat on the story as they would have been accused of protecting the star, but Sir Cliff’s former PR Mark Borkowski considers the coverage was a grave error of judgement.
“I don’t think we’ll see the same ever again where the BBC became like a city news station in an American capital,” he said.
“Very, very poor journalistic response to what was a plot, some people would say.”
During the trial, the BBC pointed to cases where the accused were found guilty, such as Stuart Hall and where press coverage prompted other victims to come forward.
Suzanne McKie QC, agreed this could be a landmark case affecting anonymity.
“If the court determines you have a right to anonymity until charged that could have a significant impact, particularly in historical sex abuse case because how do you get individuals who might be victims to come forward until the person is named,” she said.
A reserved judgment from the Mr Justice Mann is expected in the next four to six weeks.