The BBC’s director of news and current affairs has told a High Court judge that journalists had a public interest responsibility to cover a police search of Sir Cliff Richard’s home. Fran Unsworth told Mr Justice Mann at a High Court trial in London that the BBC had a responsibility to report but also to be sensitive.

She took that view at the time of the search nearly four years ago, and still held it, she said. Ms Unsworth told the judge:

“I took the view, and still do, that we had a responsibility in the public interest to report this whilst still being sensitive to the position of Sir Cliff. The BBC has publicly said it is very sorry that Sir Cliff suffered distress and that remains the position. The BBC reported the police search of Sir Cliff’s apartment and its investigation in a factually accurate manner and reported the early status of the investigation. The BBC’s reporting prominently featured Sir Cliff’s full denial of the allegations as soon as the denial had been issued.”

The judge has heard that at the time of the search by South Yorkshire Police Ms Unsworth was deputy director of BBC news and current affairs.

“It is the responsibility of the BBC as a journalistic organisation to report the news and information of public interest,” Ms Unsworth said in a written witness statement.  This includes in principle the reporting of police investigations and activities, including arrests and the charging of individuals. The BBC is very conscious of its legal responsibilities in reporting such matters.”

Ms Unsworth said there was no “blanket legal or editorial rule” banning the naming of people under police investigation. She said the BBC made efforts to offer a “right of reply”.  Ms Unsworth indicated that the aim was to ensure “fairness and accuracy” and to give the audience as “full a picture as possible” at the time of broadcast.

Ms Unsworth said she regarded privacy issues with the reporting of the raid as an “editorial matter, rather than a legal one”.  She said she had addressed her mind to Sir Cliff’s rights to privacy and realised the story would have a “significant impact” on the singer, so had to “think carefully” about whether the BBC should run it.

She told the court: “I certainly was aware that this would cause serious damage to Sir Cliff, but I had to carefully weigh up on the day what the public interest in doing the story as balanced against that.”

Ms Unsworth said:

“Allegations of sexual assault by high-profile individuals in the public eye and the investigation of such allegations are, in my view, public interest matters for news reporting. Media reporting can lead to witnesses coming forward, sometimes to disprove the allegations or sometimes other complainants may come forward.”

She cited reporting of allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour against film producer Harvey Weinstein and actor Kevin Spacey – and reporting of sexual abuse allegations against football coaches. Ms Unsworth said complainants had a right to freedom of expression.

She also said images and pictures were “vital” to television news programmes.  “It is crucial that the BBC and other broadcasters can show viewers what is happening, not just tell them,” she said.  “Visual images of events actually happening are far more impactful than words spoken by the newsreader or other journalist.”

Justin Rushbrooke QC, for Sir Cliff, said: “It must have occurred to you that to associate a famous person with an allegation of that kind was likely to leave, not just a cloud, but an indelible stain on his character.”

Ms Unsworth replied:

“It certainly occurred to me that this was a fairly momentous thing that we were doing as far as a very high-profile individual was concerned, yes. But I also felt that there were all sorts of reasons as to why the BBC should do this, which have strong public interest arguments about naming suspects who are part of a police investigation and reporting a police investigation.

Ms Unsworth told the court she “did query” the use of the helicopter and set out strict rules about how any footage obtained from it should be used – including that it should not be broadcast live.

But South Yorkshire Police raised “no objections” to the use of the helicopter, and she considered they were “helping” the corporation by providing a newspaper article including details of Sir Cliff’s home.

The footage did not strike her as being “particularly intrusive” when she saw it after it was broadcast, she said, adding:

“I think that what I was thinking was that Sir Cliff was not in the property, that the shots through the window were of policemen and they were quite blurred. It didn’t strike me as intrusive.

Ms Unsworth said she was the most senior editor on duty at the time of the search because James Harding, who was then director of news, was on holiday.

“I was asked to make a decision on whether to approve broadcast reports in the event that the police search went ahead,” she said. “My view was that this was not a story which we could report without identifying Sir Cliff.”

If police had warned that reporting the search would harm their investigation their reasons would have been given “serious consideration”, she said.

“It was ultimately my responsibility, by virtue of my role, to make a decision whether the BBC would run that story on that day. There was a consensus between senior editorial news staff that we should report the fact of (the) search and the allegation in connection with which it was made.

She took the view that the investigation and search was a “matter of high public interest”, she said, adding: “That remains my view.”

Asked if the footage taken from the helicopter now seemed intrusive to other people, Ms Unsworth replied: “Yes it does – because, with the benefit of four years of looking back and listening to Sir Cliff in this court, it is clear that other people take a different view about the intrusive nature of those helicopter shots.

She added: “In my view, they were of policemen – not Sir Cliff – they were relatively indistinct, so although I didn’t see them before they went out, had I been asked about them I would have ok’d them.”

Mr Rushbrooke asked: “Did it not occur to you (…) that you were effectively allowing the public to spy into Sir Cliff’s home?”

She replied:

“Well, I reject the term spying because we weren’t spying. Spying is something done surreptitiously and there is nothing surreptitious about a helicopter. As I have said, had I seen those pictures I would have let them go out and it did not occur to me afterwards that this was any invasion of privacy of the nature you are talking about.

Mr Rushbrooke said: “It must have been obvious to you, if you were giving proper consideration to what you reported, that this was intrusive.

Ms Unsworth responded: “I regarded it as an editorial issue.

Ms Unsworth said she was satisfied that information journalists had was “factually correct“.

Sir Cliff had not been interviewed or arrested by South Yorkshire Police but the police had been granted permission by a judge to enter and search his apartment,” she said.

We knew that meant that the police were taking the investigation seriously and that a judge had decided that there were grounds to issue a search warrant.

She added:

“In considering the public interest of reporting we took into account the fact that Sir Cliff is a well-known public figure in the UK and around the world. He has featured in public life for many decades as a successful singer and entertainer, for his charitable works and his Christianity and the importance of his faith.

The “context of the time” was also important, Ms Unsworth said, adding:

“By August 2014 there had been a number of significant and high-profile police investigations into allegations of historic sexual offences against minors by high-profile, influential figures in British public life, including in the entertainment industry. They included, for example, investigations into Rolf Harris, Max Clifford, Jimmy Tarbuck and Stuart Hall.  There had been scrutiny of what public institutions, including the police and the BBC, had known about suspected perpetrators of alleged historic sexual offences at the time or later, and why the police had not gone further with investigations or charges (particularly in respect of Jimmy Savile when he was alive).

The decision-making process had taken into account what might happen if the BBC did not name Sir Cliff and added:

“If the BBC had taken a decision not to report on the activities of South Yorkshire Police and its search of Sir Cliff’s apartment, the BBC would have been open to accusations of sitting on a public interest news item because the subject of the investigation was a well-known figure in the UK who was admired by many.

The case continues.

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