Case Report, Sir Cliff Richard v BBC, Day 8, Editor: BBC could have faced criticism for not reporting investigation – Media Lawyer

24 04 2018

The BBC might have faced criticism if it had not reported that Sir Cliff Richard was the subject of a police investigation, an editor has told a High Court judge.  Gary Smith told Mr Justice Mann that the BBC could have been accused of not reporting a matter of high public interest because the singer was a high-profile figure.

Discussion about the search at Sir Cliff’s home nearly four years ago had taken place against a backdrop of the history of the “Jimmy Savile allegations”, Mr Smith, who was UK news editor for BBC News at the time, told Mr Justice Mann.

Mr Smith, who is now the BBC’s head of news and current affairs in Scotland, outlined his thoughts during the latest stage of Sir Cliff’s High Court privacy action against the BBC over its coverage of the 2014 South Yorkshire Police search.

Mr Smith said one consideration had been whether it would have been right for the BBC to withhold the information it had obtained.

“These discussions took place against the backdrop of (the) history of the Jimmy Savile allegations and knowledge within institutions which had not been made public,” he said in a written witness statement given to the judge.

“An important factor in the editorial discussions about naming individuals who were the subject of police investigations was the issue of the media not reporting information it knew to be correct.” 

He added: “The BBC could have been accused of not reporting a matter of high public interest because Sir Cliff Richard was a high-profile public figure.” 

Mr Smith went on: “This was not a matter where we would have sought Sir Cliff’s consent to run the story. It is obvious he would not have consented.

“The media’s public interest reporting often involves telling the public something that a public figure would prefer the public not to hear.” 

Mr Smith denied that having an “exclusive” and beating rivals was his “principal preoccupation” with the story, telling the court: “My principal preoccupation with any story is to ensure it is accurate, fair and balanced in its telling.”

He regretted having sent Mr Wilson an e-mail in which he quoted from Sir Cliff’s hit song Congratulations, he said.  After being told that Mr Johnson had had a tip-off that police were investigating the singer, Mr Smith wrote: “Congratulations and jubilations, I want the world to know I’m happy as can be.”

Yesterday Mr Smith told the court: “This was a private communication with a trusted colleague, it was not, clearly, meant for publication.”  His response prompted an outburst of laughter in court as he added: “To be honest, seeing this, I regret writing what I wrote.”

Mr Smith also denied he was “excited” about the story when he wrote the e-mail.  He said: “I’m not sure the word excitement is quite right. I was pleased that one of our reporters had the beginnings of an important story.”

After Mr Justice Mann asked him a further question about whether his use of the word “wow” in the e-mail suggested he was excited, he added: “I was definitely surprised. As I say I’m not sure I would describe my feelings as excited, but definitely surprised.”   Mr Smith said the BBC had reported investigations into a number of high-profile figures, including Rolf Harris, Max Clifford, Paul Gambaccini and Jimmy Tarbuck – and none of them had attracted legal complaints related to breach of privacy.

Mr Tarbuck and Mr Gambaccini had been investigated and arrested but not charged, he said, while Harris and Clifford were convicted of sexual offences.  “Sir Cliff Richard would have been the biggest household name to be under investigation,” he said.

“I say this in the sense that he was and is a high-profile public figure whose public status went beyond his success as an entertainer.  He was known for his charitable work and was ‘part of the establishment’ in many ways.”

Mr Smith told the judge that “… we were confident in terms of the accuracy of our reporting, in addition the public interest underpinning it.”  The BBC sent reporters to Portugal and Barbados ahead of the police search of Sir Cliff’s Berkshire home.

Mr Smith denied the journalists were sent there to “doorstep” the singer at one of his foreign properties.  He said: “If there was the possibility of an interview, we would have needed to be in the appropriate place to do it, which is why we deployed people there.”  He accepted it was “unlikely” the entertainer would have been willing to do an interview, but said it was “not impossible”.

Mr Smith said:

“It was our responsibility as journalists to report upon such stories because of the considerable debate going on about whether there had been failings by the authorities in allowing certain public figures to have access to young people and what the authorities and indeed media organisations (including the BBC) knew about certain individuals.  South Yorkshire Police’s investigation into Sir Cliff Richard was part of a sequence of ongoing significant public interest stories about police investigations in public figures for sexual abuse.” 

Mr Smith said he briefed the then deputy director of news Fran Unsworth, who was acting as director of news because then director of news James Harding was on holiday, in the weeks before the search.  “Fran Unsworth was the most senior editorial figure,” said Mr Smith.  “The involvement of Fran Unsworth reflected the sensitive nature of the story and Sir Cliff Richard’s status as a public figure.”

Editors thought it right to name Sir Cliff, Mr Smith said, adding: “The BBC was confident we knew who the individual under investigation was.

“From an editorial point of view, those making the decision (myself included) were satisfied as to the accuracy of the BBC’s intelligence and that it was the right thing to do to name Sir Cliff Richard in our reporting, that is to say that it was in the public interest for the BBC as a media organisation to inform the public of the investigation.” 

The BBC had contacted Sir Cliff’s representatives once the search had begun to explain that the intention was to broadcast a story.

A report was broadcast on the News at One, and a press statement issued by the singer was broadcast in full at around 2pm on the News Channel, Mr Smith said.

“If, during the right of reply process, we had been told that Sir Cliff Richard would be instructing lawyers and that they intended to seek an injunction, we would have taken legal advice as whether we should delay or refrain from broadcasting,” he told the court.

Mr Smith said he did not feel the use of the helicopter was “disproportionate” and denied that the BBC was aiming for a “sensational” story.  He accepted that the images filmed from the helicopter were an “intrusion” into Sir Cliff’s privacy, but added:

“There was a balance between the intrusion and the public interest.  I’m saying there was a strong public interest in having pictures of what was happening inside the gated complex.”

Mr Smith said he did not feel the use of the helicopter was “disproportionate” and denied that the BBC was aiming for a “sensational” story.

He accepted that the images filmed from the helicopter were an “intrusion” into Sir Cliff’s privacy, but added:

“There was a balance between the intrusion and the public interest. I’m saying there was a strong public interest in having pictures of what was happening inside the gated complex.”

The case continues.

This report originally appeared on the online subscription service Media Lawyer and is reproduced with permission and thanks.


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4 responses

27 04 2018
Marian Donovan

Its just disgusting to do this to an innocent person they just wanted a sensational story even though it was false cant be right to wreck someones career like this or try it wasnt fair and the BBC need to pay high damages

30 04 2018
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6 05 2018
willistina556

Always empathy for all TRUE victims.

But, since the ‘No Evidence – No Trial’ Savile modern injustice, for MONEY, careers, ratings, profit, BIG compo, fake media FAT fees.

NO so called ‘suspect’ should ever be pre-trial publicly named.

Because EVERYONE now knows that so called ‘Victims’/Complainants/LIARS can ‘come forward’ to fake claim ‘Me Too MONEY’.

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