Did you, as I did, succumb to the temptation of searching Cliff Richard’s name on Twitter following the news that his Berkshire home had been “raided” by the police? If you did, you will have seen that many appear to be in no doubt as to his guilt.
Notwithstanding Cliff’s strongly worded statement that the allegation being investigated was “completely false”, one of this country’s most successful pop-stars is now the object of the scorn and derision that comes with an allegation of child abuse. No doubt his lawyers will be working overtime, but it’s a damage limitation exercise from the time the police search was reported in the media, and this most abhorrent stain on his character will exist in some form whatever happens from here.
Remember, neither Cliff Richard nor anyone else have been arrested or charged by the police in connection with this investigation, let alone tried and convicted. Unless he is convicted, he must be presumed innocent – which is all very well for me to say, but hopeless wishful-thinking when it comes to managing the mob’s response on Twitter and other social media platforms.
It is for this reason that the police have to be particularly careful in their investigations into a) serious and sensitive allegations and b) those who are in the public eye. South Yorkshire police have now admitted “working with a media outlet” prior to the search which enabled the media to record the arrival of a convoy of police vehicles. Cliff Richard’s statement made it clear how shocked he was that whilst he was not given notice of the search, the press were. Photographers, film cameras and even helicopters were ready to tell the world.
The accepted practice of the police is not to identify those who have been arrested, let alone those who are merely fall within the scope of their pre-arrest investigations. There is guidance to that effect from the Association of Chief Police Officers.
The Leveson Report, which followed an analysis of the relationship between the press and police in Module 2 of the Inquiry, states the following at Volume II, Chapter 3 [pdf] paragraph 2.39:
“I think that it should be made abundantly clear that save in exceptional and clearly identified circumstances (for example, where there may be an immediate risk to the public), the names or identifying details of those who are arrested or suspected of a crime should not be released to the press nor the public”.
It is difficult to see how any exceptional circumstances could have applied in this case.
This paragraph of the Leveson Report was referred to in a recent High Court judgment in the case of Hannon v News Group Newspapers Ltd  EWHC 1580 (Ch). The arrest of the Claimant in that case was the subject of a tip off where the journalist is alleged to have paid for the information. Hannon was seeking compensation from both the police and the publishers of the Sun newspaper for the consequences she suffered following that tip-off, a sensationalist and humiliating account of her ordeal and arrest (she was not charged or convicted). The publishers of the Sun newspaper applied unsuccessfully to strike out the case and, importantly in this context, failed in their argument that the case could not proceed because there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in the existence of an arrest. The Judge decided that the case had sufficient merit to be decided at trial.
South Yorkshire Police, who are conducting the investigation into the allegations involving Cliff Richard, may have the added task of explaining to Cliff and his lawyers why he was afforded no such privacy. Unless they have a good explanation, there may be serious consequences not least in the civil courts. Because while Cliff Richard is innocent in the eyes of the law, the verdict in the eyes of the baying public is being pronounced every second. And this, it appears to me, is an inevitable consequence of a tip-off that should never have happened.
Dominic Crossley is a Partner of Payne Hicks Beach within the Privacy & Media Law Team.