The fifth day of the trial of Sir Cliff Richard v BBC saw the conclusion of the claimant’s case and the first witness for the BBC. The Judge heard evidence from Sir Cliff’s solicitor and PR advisor and from the journalist who had broken the story.
Solicitor, Gideon Benaim, a partner at the law firm Simkins, told the Court that Sir Cliff Richard faced a “crisis situation” following a BBC broadcast reporting on a police search of his home.
The singer had asked lawyers to take what reasonable steps they could to prevent “consequent damage”, Mr Benaim said. He added that he thought the police investigation would have been
shorter if the BBC journalists had not covered events in the way they did.
He told the court that lawyers did their best to “mitigate the damage” following the BBC broadcast. “Quite clearly, but for the BBC actions on the day, there would have been no need for vast amount of work we did for (Sir Cliff),” Mr Benaim said in a witness statement.
“In all likelihood we would have just carried on advising the client in the same low-level and intermittent basis we had been advising him on
before August 14 2014.”
“There were approximately 13,000 emails exchanged in relation to the matter between August 2014 and June 2016, which highlights the
sheer volume of work that this firm undertook for (Sir Cliff) during the period.”
Sir Cliff was in a “crisis” situation, Mr Benaim said, adding:
“We worked throughout the period alongside Sir Cliff’s PR advisers, which is an entirely normal practice and indeed necessary in crisis situations, which is clearly what Sir Cliff found himself in due to the BBC’s actions.“
Mr Benaim said the BBC coverage of the raid, which disclosed that Sir Cliff was under investigation over a sexual assault allegation, led to other accusations being made against the singer.
“I believe it was as a direct result of the publicity generated by the BBC that various people came out of the woodwork, and those allegations came to nothing eventually,” he told the court.
He also said he and his team were “firefighting” over the two-year police investigation, as a result of the publicity. Mr Benaim said police were “tied up” for two years investigating various allegations made by people who were “mentally ill” or wanting to “cause mischief”.
These included a man who had attempted to blackmail Sir Cliff and had contacted a newspaper with his claims, he said, adding:
“The claimant has had an unblemished career over six decades and this was a massive issue. It was really critical and important to try and deal with these allegations and to prevent further damage as far as we could.”
One of Sir Cliff Richard’s public relations advisers told the court about a conversation he had with a BBC representative shortly before a broadcast of the police search of the singer’s home nearly four years ago.
Phil Hall said he spoke to the BBC nearly two hours before the coverage on a 1pm news bulletin. He said he was not given any hint of the nature of the broadcast and nothing was said about “helicopters” or “quasi-rolling coverage” or “special deals with the police”.
“The first time that morning that I spoke to someone at the BBC was approximately 11.15am,” Mr Hall, who edited the News of the World newspaper for five years, said in a witness statement. “The person I spoke to was Bernadette Kitterick. I believe that Ms Kitterick had tried to get hold of me slightly earlier than that.”
Mr Hall said: “I do not recall whether I phoned Ms Kitterick or whether she phoned me at 11.15am UK time, but I am reasonably clear in my recollection of what Ms Kitterick said.
“Our conversation was relatively short. She said that the South Yorkshire Police were searching (Sir Cliff’s) apartment and that the BBC were present onsite. She then informed me that the BBC was planning to run a story about the search later that day and they would like to have a statement about it from my client. She also said that the BBC were prepared to give me some time to do that. I replied by asking Ms Kitterick if the BBC intended to name (Sir Cliff) in their story. She replied that she did not know.”
“Under the circumstances, my response to Ms Kitterick was that I was not prepared to say anything on behalf of my client, not even ‘no comment’. My reasoning, in essence, was in seeking to obtain a comment from the claimant, Ms Kitterick was not interested in anything he might have to say. “What she was trying to do, in my view, was to ‘legitimise’ the BBC’s story, ie to obtain an ‘on-the-record’ comment from the claimant which enabled them to say that the claimant had confirmed that it was his apartment which had been searched.”
He went on: “In relation to this phone conversation with Ms Kitterick at 11.15am UK time, Ms Kitterick said nothing which gave me any hint that the BBC was planning broadcasts of the nature that emerged at 1pm UK time.
“Nothing was said about helicopters, or exclusives, or live or quasi-live rolling coverage, or any special deals with the police, or anything else of that nature. Nor was anything said at that stage about the BBC planning to go to air at 1pm. As I have already said, the impression that Ms Kitterick gave me at this stage was that the BBC were planning to run a story at some point later in the day, and there wasn’t any great urgency about it because they were prepared to give me some time to prepare a statement.“
Mr Hall said a press release was issued on Sir Cliff’s behalf at about 2pm and added: “By that time, the BBC had identified (Sir Cliff) as the person whose property was being searched by the police in Sunningdale (I believe it was still in the process of being searched), and the story had gone all around the world.”
Mr Hall denied leaking information. He said the BBC had written to Sir Cliff’s lawyers describing an article published on the Mail Online website on the day of the search.
“It is said by the BBC that this article was published at 1307, and that this was six minutes after the BBC ran the story on the News At One,” said Mr Hall.
“The BBC go on to say that I have close contacts with the publisher of the Mail Online, and effectively accuses me of being in contact with Mail Online and perhaps other media organisations as well, leaking information about this story to them. This is simply preposterous. I was trying to protect (Sir Cliff) from media intrusion, and acted in what I believed to be his best interests at all times. For the record, I have good contacts not just at the Mail/Mail Online, but most if not all of the main UK news publishers. I did not ‘leak’ anything of this nature to any of them.”
Mr Hall said he would not have told Ms Kitterick he would “put the story out” if she didn’t stop calling him. He said it was a matter of “integrity” and if journalists believed he would give their story to a rival then his business would be “gone”.
He was not told the BBC had a helicopter in the air – he would have taken immediate action if he had been, he told the court, adding: “I would have been straight to the lawyers about it and talking about an intrusive situation.”
The BBC began its case in the afternoon. Dan Johnson, the BBC reporter who broke a story about Sir Cliff Richard’s home being searched by police following an allegation of sex assault has told the Court that he guessed the singer’s name after a contact told him police were looking at “just one more major figure”.
Mr Johnson said he had heard “previous rumours” about Sir Cliff, and he was determined to protect his confidential source”.
He said in his witness statement of how he spoke to a “contact” in June 2014 – they had talked about high-profile cases involving celebrities.
“The contact said there was just one more major figure the police were looking at. I guessed this to be Sir Cliff Richard because of previous rumours I had heard about him. The contact confirmed I had guessed the right name.”
Mr Johnson said his contact had spoken of allegations being “closer to home”.
He said his previous work had been in Sheffield and he took that to mean that South Yorkshire Police were involved.
“The contact did not correct me,” said Mr Johnson. “Because of the context of the other cases mentioned, and rumours I had heard about Sir Cliff’s sexuality, I took from this the impression that it was an allegation of sexual abuse involving a boy and dating back some years. I also got the strong impression that the police were due to take further action.”
Mr Johnson – who told the court that he was “determined to protect my confidential source” – added: “I did not put South Yorkshire Police under any pressure in order for them to provide me with the information that they did.”
Mr Johnson was cross-examined by Sir Cliff’s Counsel, Justin Rushbrooke QC. He asked: “Do you accept your story has caused massive damage and distress to Sir Cliff?” Mr Johnson replied: “I accept that he has been upset and distressed about it.”
He later added:
“I accept the distress he feels, I don’t accept it was caused by me uniquely. Obviously South Yorkshire Police were part of that and my colleagues at the BBC who were part of the story as well. 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 Rushbrooke then asked Mr Johnson if he was prepared to offer Sir Cliff a personal apology in court, before Mr Justice Mann intervened and said the line of questioning was “not helpful”.
Mr Johnson said that in early July 2014 he had asked Carrie Goodwin, South Yorkshire Police’s head of communications, about Sir Cliff.
“I asked her something like whether Sir Cliff Richard was on South Yorkshire Police’s radar, or said that I had heard he was on their radar,. Carrie Goodwin’s response was an audible gasp followed by a short silence – this indicated to me that Sir Cliff Richard was ‘on their radar’ in that sense. To the best of my recollection Carrie may then have said something to me like ‘where did you hear that?’ and I made a light-hearted reply about having the best contacts.“
“Carrie said I must indeed have good sources. She told me that she could not say anything more but that she might be able to tell me something in future. I agreed to keep the information to myself. She said something to the effect of ‘I’m not sure how much I can say, let me check and get back to you’.”
About a week later, said Mr Johnson, Ms Goodwin sent him an e-mail asking, “... do you want me to set something up with the officer in the celebrity case? …”
“I was very surprised that South Yorkshire Police volunteered an interview so quickly and were offering an interview with the officer in charge,” said Mr Johnson. “It was beyond what I was expecting.”
He said he had gone to South Yorkshire Police’s headquarters in Carbrook, Sheffield, in mid-July and been introduced to Detective Superintendent Matt Fenwick. Ms Goodwin had told him that Detective Superintendent Fenwick would “brief me” about “the celebrity case”, he said.
While he was waiting in the lobby South Yorkshire Police’s then Chief Constable David Crompton had shaken his hand and “said hello”. Mr Johnson added: “He seemed to know why I was there, saying something like ‘you’re here to see Carrie aren’t you?’ although we did not discuss why.”
Asked what thought he had given to the privacy of Sir Cliff, Mr Johnson said his primary concern was around himself and his position when filming near the singer’s home. Decisions about the helicopter being used to gather images were taken by senior editorial staff in London, he said. “It wasn’t for me to consider the bigger picture, the wider implications of what was being broadcast,” he told the court.
“It wasn’t my responsibility and I hadn’t seen everything that was being filmed. If you are talking about the general idea of having the helicopter there then I thought that it was useful to tell people what was going on.”
The case continues.
This is an edited version of the reports which appeared on the online subscription service Media Lawyer and is reproduced with permission and thanks.