Media commentators are already declaiming Justice Mann’s judgment in favour of Cliff Richard over the BBC as a “dark day for press freedom”. Rubbish. These arguments are specious. The public interest and public prurience should not be conflated. The public interest must not be determined by the media alone. The Human Rights Act (which Theresa May despises) has something to say on the matter. We are not dealing here with the Cambridge Analytica story or the Paradise Papers – examples of a clear public interest uncovered by investigative journalists (not the BBC).
Pre-empting the judicial process by publicising the earliest stage of an investigation encourages fishing trips and chancers. We have seen much of that post-Savile. Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s director of news, cited Harris, Hall and Clifford in aid but pointedly omitted the innocent, like Paul Gambaccini, Jimmy Tarbuck and many others. In Cliff Richard’s’s case, the fantasists who came forward added nearly two years to his anguish and used up close to a million pounds of South Yorkshire police’s budget. Cliff Richard wasn’t arrested or charged and was interviewed only twice, voluntarily.
The emotional atmosphere around sex crimes should not obscure the right to the presumption of innocence. The BBC would do well to read again what Lord Justice Leveson said about privacy. They should know better. More Lord Reith, less red top.
• Your media editor writes that the BBC’s decision to name Cliff Richard was “in line with previous standard British journalistic practice” (Report, 19 July). That depends on how previous. In my day, admittedly a long time ago, the rules were otherwise, and you were in deep trouble if you forgot it. American journalistic practice we considered a bad joke and an offence to legal process. We’re catching up fast.
• I seldom disagree with the stance the Guardian takes but cannot support your leader of 19 July (The ruling for Cliff Richard and against the BBC menaces our free press).
Police collusion with any media organisation about a raid on the home of a named person on what might well be a “fishing exercise” sets dangerous precedents. The police revealed what the raid was about. The person named is considered guilty by association and this is contrary to basic justice.
What other routes are available to an individual to clear their name other than through the courts?
The outcome of this case is not an assault on press freedom, but the circumstances surrounding the raid were a serious attack on the individual’s human rights.
• Your leader claims that the judge’s ruling against the BBC and in favour of Cliff Richard puts a ban on the press reporting on police activities. But this is a distortion of what the judged ruled. He stated that the press only has the right to report police investigations where there is a clear public interest in doing so. In this particular case, where a single accusation was being looked into, there was no such public interest. As in the Christopher Jefferies case, the press acted in a high-handed, prurient manner and broke the law as it stands. The press is not being muzzled, it is being told to act responsibly.
St Ives, Cornwall
• Your leader does not identify the person who made the allegation. Why? The implication is that a legal prohibition on naming accusers does not “menace the free press”. Can you explain?
Stoke Newington, London
• It is the BBC television licence fee payers who will pick up the legal bill and damages awards for Cliff Richard’s appalling treatment at the hands of the corporation – not the guilty parties.
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