Cliff Richard has won his privacy case against the BBC and will be awarded an initial £210,000 in damages following a lengthy legal battle after the broadcaster reported that the singer was being investigated over historical child sex assault claims.
The judgment, handed down in central London on Wednesday morning, comes almost four years after the BBC broke the news that South Yorkshire police had searched the singer’s home in relation to the accusation.
In a decision that will have enormous implications for how the British media report on ongoing police investigations where no charges have been brought, Mr Justice Mann awarded Richard £190,000 damages. The singer was also awarded a further £20,000 aggravated damages for the BBC’s decision to nominate the story for the Royal Television Society’s scoop of the year award.
Further damages relating to the financial impact on Richard – such as cancelled book deals or concerts – are yet to be assessed but could be substantial. The judge said the damages “for which both parties are responsible” would be borne 35% by South Yorkshire police and 65% by the BBC.
The judge said the BBC had reported the story in a “somewhat sensationalist” way.
Richard appeared in court to hear the verdict, accompanied by his friends Gloria Hunniford and Paul Gambaccini. Reacting to the judgment afterwards, he said: “I’m choked up. I can’t believe it. It’s wonderful news.”
The singer cried with relief after the ruling was announced. As he left with his legal team, fans gathered outside and sang a refrain of the singer’s hit Congratulations. He said he was too emotional to talk in detail, adding: “I hope you’ll forgive me.”
In a statement released after the ruling, the BBC director of news, Fran Unsworth, apologised to Richard and said there were things about the story that should have been handled differently. But she said the corporation could appeal against the judgment, and she warned about the wider consequences of the ruling for for press freedom.
“We are sorry for the distress that Sir Cliff has been through,” she said. “We understand the very serious impact that this has had on him.” But, she added, “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, despite ruling that what we broadcast about the search was accurate.”
Warning that the judgment created new case law and represented a “dramatic shift” against the ability of journalists to report on police investigations, Unsworth continued: “We don’t believe this is compatible with liberty and press freedoms, something that has been at the heart of this country for generations. For all of these reasons there is a significant principle at stake.”
Richard’s lawyer, Gideon Benaim, was highly critical of the BBC. He said the singer had never expected after 60 years in the public eye to have his “privacy and reputation tarnished in such a way”.
The BBC had refused to apologise and insisted it had run a “public interest story”, Benaim added. He said serious questions should be asked about why the organisation had tried so hard to preserve its “exclusive” story.
Unsworth and Jonathan Munro, another senior manager who was also involved in the decision to broadcast the footage in 2014, looked on as they listened to the judge criticise the decision.
The judge concluded that Richard had privacy rights and the BBC “infringed those rights without a legal justification”.
“It did so in a serious way and also in a somewhat sensationalist way,” he said. “I have rejected the BBC’s case that it was justified in reporting as it did under its rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.”
Richard strongly denied the claims against him and no charges were brought, prompting the singer to sue the BBC for a “very serious invasion” of his privacy after it flew a helicopter over his home to film police during the raid.
The singer, 77, is one of the most successful recording artists in British history. His legal team said he had suffered “possibly permanent damage to his self-esteem, standing and reputation” by the coverage of claims he sexually assaulted a young boy following a Billy Graham rally in Sheffield in 1985.
The story broke at a time when several of the UK’s veteran celebrities were facing accusations of child sex abuse in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal.
Richard has said he spent £3.4m bringing the privacy case, which the BBC said it had felt obliged to fight because it insisted its coverage was fair and proportionate. He had been demanding damages at the “top end” of the scale from the corporation.
The singer had already settled out of court with South Yorkshire police for £400,000 before the start of the trial. The police worked with the BBC and provided the broadcaster with advance knowledge of the raid following an approach by one of the corporation’s journalists, who had learned of the ongoing investigation.
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