Standing outside the High Court yesterday, Sir Cliff Richard cried. He had just been awarded £190,000 general damages against the BBC (infringement of privacy; general effect on his life), plus another £20,000 aggravated damages (the BBC nominating its story for an award at the Royal Television Society Awards as ‘Scoop of the Year’). This £210,000 is on top of the £400,000 paid to him by South Yorkshire Police, after admitting liability in respect of their disclosure to the BBC that he was under investigation for alleged sexual offences involving a minor. This led to the whole ‘breaking news’ drama of a helicopter flying over his home in Surrey while police officers entered to conduct a search. Sir Cliff was in Portugal at the time: the first he knew of the investigation against him was when a friend phoned him to tell him what was going on.
This was in August 2014. Two years later, in June 2016, he was told there would be no charges brought against him. And now, two years on from that, he is exonerated with an award of substantial damages. That’s four years of paedo-smear purgatory, during which Sir Cliff Richard has become a shadow.
The High Court judgment of Mr Justice Mann is damning: the BBC should hang its head in shame. To read that they are considering an appeal is astonishing. Director of News and Current Affairs Fran Unsworth said: “The judge has ruled that the very naming of Sir Cliff was unlawful. So even had the BBC not used helicopter shots or ran the story with less prominence, the judge would still have found that the story was unlawful. We don’t believe this is compatible with liberty and press freedoms, something that has been at the heart of this country for generations.”
Sir Cliff Richard is 77 years old. He is patently innocent of all the allegations made against him, and yet the BBC seems intent on destroying him. Their concern is with para. 248 of the judgment:
It seems to me that on the authorities, and as a matter of general principle, a suspect has a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to a police investigation, and I so rule. As a general rule it is understandable and justifiable (and reasonable) that a suspect would not wish others to know of the investigation because of the stigma attached. It is, as a general rule, not necessary for anyone outside the investigating force to know, and the consequences of wider knowledge have been made apparent in many cases… If the presumption of innocence were perfectly understood and given effect to, and if the general public was universally capable of adopting a completely open – and broad-minded view of the fact of an investigation so that there was no risk of taint either during the investigation or afterwards (assuming no charge) then the position might be different. But neither of those things is true. The fact of an investigation, as a general rule, will of itself carry some stigma, no matter how often one says it should not.
To be investigated is to be stigmatised – no smoke without fire, and all that. The presumption of innocence remains, but not in the minds of the malevolent or prurient or media outlets eager to sell the sensation. To be suspended from one’s employment is not a neutral act (though it is framed as such): people conjecture and whisper, and the reputational damage is significant. The decision to name Sir Cliff Richard in respect of historic sex offences against a minor while he was in Portugal and so unable to refute or respond at all effectively suspended his career for four years. But much more than the damage to his career and reputation has been the deep emotional and personal cost.
Speaking to ITV News, he spoke of his visits to Wimbledon and the tunnel which links Centre Court to Court One: “I used to use it regularly to go and see the matches I was interested in on Court One,” he said. “And it went right past the ball boys dressing room. I won’t go there now. I won’t go anywhere near children. Why? I’ve spent my whole life hugging people’s grandchildren.”
For fear of a momentary glance at a ball boy being purposely warped into an allegation of sexual assault, Sir Cliff Richard will live out his remaining years ring-fenced from children. He is to become a totally safe space; a self-isolating cushion of perpetual safeguarding.
But Mr Justice Mann had a word or two for the Church of England, too. Quoting from Sir Richard Henriques’ ‘Independent review of the Metropolitan Police Service’s handling of non-recent sexual offence investigations alleged against persons of public prominence’, he said:
“1.39. In the case of prominent people, it appears that they are more vulnerable to false complaints than others. The cases I have reviewed involve individuals, most of whom are household names. Their identities are known to millions. They are vulnerable to compensation seekers, attention seekers, and those with mental health problems. The internet provides the information and detail to support a false allegation. Entertainers are particularly vulnerable to false allegations meeting, as they do, literally thousands of attention-seeking fans who provoke a degree of familiarity which may be exaggerated or misconstrued in their recollection many years later. Deceased persons are particularly vulnerable as allegations cannot be answered.
…”1.94… It is difficult, if not impossible, to articulate the emotional turmoil and distress that those persons and their families have had to endure. The allegations have had a profoundly damaging effect upon the characters and reputations of those living and those deceased. In differing ways those reputations have been hard-won, over several decades, and yet in Operation Midland they were shattered by the word of a single, uncorroborated complainant… In short, these men are all victims of false allegations and yet they remain treated as men against whom there was insufficient evidence to prosecute them. The presumption of innocence appears to have been set aside.”
Short of flying a helicopter over his grave in Chichester Cathedral, how does what the BBC inflicted upon the good name of Sir Cliff Richard differ from the disgrace and dishonour the Church of England has heaped upon the reputation of Bishop George Bell?