A BBC reporter has told a High Court judge that he did not force a senior detective into providing information about a raid on the home of Sir Cliff Richard.
Dan Johnson, who broke the story about the investigation and raid nearly four years ago, denied using strong-arm tactics on a South Yorkshire Police detective superintendent.
He did not work “like that”, he told Mr Justice Mann at the High Court yesterday.
Sir Cliff, 77, is suing the BBC over coverage of the South Yorkshire Police search in August 2014 and wants damages at the “top end” of the scale. He says the coverage, which involved the use of a helicopter, was a “very serious invasion” of his privacy.
The BBC disputes the singer’s claims, and says its coverage of the search of the apartment in Sunningdale, Berkshire, was accurate, in good faith and on a matter of public interest.
The court has heard that in late 2013, a man went to the Metropolitan Police alleging that, when he was a child, in 1985, Sir Cliff had sexually assaulted him during an event featuring evangelist Billy Graham at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane football stadium. Metropolitan Police officers passed the allegation to South Yorkshire Police in July 2014.
Sir Cliff, who was never arrested, has consistently denied the allegation, and in June 2016 prosecutors announced that he would face no charges.
The BBC has said that it reported Sir Cliff’s “full denial of the allegations at every stage”.
Mr Justice Mann, who is presiding at the trial, has heard how Mr Johnson asked a South Yorkshire Police press officer if Sir Cliff was on the “radar” after getting a tip that the singer was under investigation.
Former Detective Superintendent Matthew Fenwick, who was the South Yorkshire Police officer heading the investigation into Sir Cliff, has told how he felt “forced” into revealing information about the raid.
Mr Fenwick, who has since retired from the force, said Mr Johnson had said “he could and he would” publish a story before police wanted information to emerge.
Justin Rushbrooke QC, for Sir Cliff, asked Mr Johnson during yesterday’s hearing what he meant in an internal BBC e-mail when he made remarks about a clip of Evangelist preacher Billy Graham rally at Bramall Lane in the 1980s.
The phrases “it wasn’t just the hand of God doing the touching” and “guilty in my book” were an indication of the reporter’s “mindset” about the story, said Mr Rushbrooke, adding that Mr Johnson was treating the singer “as a guilty man”.
But Mr Johnson repeatedly denied that he was referring to Sir Cliff in the e-mail, and said the comments referred to Mr Graham.
He described the “hand of God” reference as a “bad taste joke”, adding: “These are light-hearted remarks made to a close colleague, it doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t affect the way I reported this story later on.”
Mr Johnson told the court 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”.
He said: “This was a story involving allegations of a very serious nature against a figure of the highest profile, against the backdrop of a number of allegations being made against other celebrities – some of whom had been jailed.”
Some of those other celebrities were jailed after victims came forward following publicity about their having been arrested or charged, he said.
“I felt this was a story I could not ignore and my responsibility was to check the facts as best as I could and then hand the story on to my editors,” Mr Johnson told the court.
Mr Rushbrooke said: “You were the hero of the day, not just in the local office, but in the national office. You were the toast of the UK newsroom.” Mr Johnson replied: “Editors seemed to be pleased that I had brought in the story.”
Asked what his “scoop” was, the reporter said:
“The news that Sir Cliff Richard was being investigated by the police and that they were searching his house. Being the first to report that is what is regarded in journalism as a scoop.“
Mr Johnson was also asked what he meant when he used the term “good
old-fashioned journalism” in an e-mail to a colleague.
He said: “That it had been based on the nurturing I had done and the relationship I had built up with a contact.”
Asked about his confidential source for his information that Sir Cliff was under investigation, Mr Johnson said he did not know when he received the tip-off that his source had got the information from within Operation Yewtree.
He also had not disclosed the source’s identity to South Yorkshire Police or to fellow BBC reporter Danny Shaw, he said, adding: “It is just a fundamental principle of journalism that you do not disclose or discuss sources with anyone – not even colleagues.”
Mr Johnson told the court he did not make any deal with South Yorkshire Police at a meeting in July 2014 at which he discussed the investigation into Sir Cliff.
“It wasn’t a deal in a formal sense, I think it was just an acceptance at the end of that meeting that if I kept quiet, more information would be forthcoming about the search – date, time, location,” he said.
He denied a suggestion that he was “strong-arming” the police into disclosing details and said he was simply making a “light-hearted” remark when he wrote in an e-mail that he had them “over a barrel”.
“That would have been blackmail or something, wouldn’t it? That would have been a criminal offence, given that I was already in a police station that could have been dealt with in a number of ways. I didn’t need to hold anyone over a barrel, I don’t work like that anyway.”
The meeting with the then Detective Superintendent Fenwick and Carrie Goodwin, the force’s head of corporate communications, was “polite, calm and well-mannered”, said Mr Johnson, adding: “The information flowed without me needing to put any pressure on anyone.”
He had not said during the meeting that his information came from within Operation Yewtree, he said, adding:
“They weren’t that interested in where it had come from. That’s why Matt Fenwick didn’t approach Yewtree until the whole thing blew up in his face.”
Mr Johnson denied telling Mr Fenwick and Ms Goodwin that he was ready to run the story about police investigating Sir Cliff unless they co-operated with him.
Mr Rushbrooke said:
“You made it clear that you were ready to publish your story, they made it clear they weren’t ready to search on the basis of what you had convinced them that you knew and your intention to go public, they agreed to co-operate with you on the date and location of the search. That is what happened.”
Mr Johnson replied:
“That is not what happened. They gave me the details of the investigation, which I wrote down my notes during the meeting. They told me the detail of the allegation, who had made it and what the nature of it was, the circumstances.”
Mr Rushbrooke told the hearing that a senior BBC executive congratulated a reporter on a “very good” piece of journalism regarding report on the raid on Sir Cliff Richard’s home.
Fran Unsworth, who earlier this year became the BBC’s director of news and current affairs, sent Mr Johnson as message describing his coverage of the search of Sir Cliff’s apartment as “an excellent piece of work,” and “a very good piece of journalism”, Mr Rushbrooke said.
The case continues.
This report originally appeared on the online subscription service Media Lawyer and is reproduced with permission and thanks.