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‘The line between privacy and free expression can't be left to single judges’ - Michael Buerk on the BBC Cliff Richard verdict

The former BBC newsreader says that the "legal no-man’s land" between the right to privacy and right to freedom of expression must be fixed

Published: Saturday, 4th August 2018 at 8:00 am

There was a time, not so very long ago, when “scoop” was a dirty word at the BBC.


The ideal news story was “high fibre” – serious, significant and reassuringly dull. To be seen reading the Daily Mail was career death and editorial meetings were like Oxford tutorials, with executives wrestling over whether there was an ellipsis in the semiotics (no, me neither).

To be first with the odd foreign famine was OK, but nothing to shout about. A princess dishing the dirt on a royal marriage very worrying indeed, but luckily we got away with it.

Not so now. The judge in the Sir Cliff Richard case castigated the BBC for “breathless sensationalism” in its coverage of the raid on his Berkshire home in 2014. And if you read the emails between the BBC newsdesk and its correspondents – the “jubilation” at getting the “money shot” (from a helicopter of police breaking into the flat) and the joshing about whether it was Cliff or Elvis who did Jailhouse Rock – you can see his point.

I sympathise, though. Journalism is not the priesthood, even at the BBC. It’s a hard, competitive business. The average age of the ten o’clock News audience is now in the 60s. The young are too busy on Twitter talking about Love Island, and everybody has to shout louder to get heard.

I’m pleased that the juices are still flowing at an organisation that can often look flatulent, bureaucratic and complacent. Great that the newsroom can still “go bananas” over a “cracking story” – even if it wasn’t.

Nobody comes out of it very well. The BBC reporter got a genuine scoop, at the height of the hysteria over Jimmy Savile. Difficult to say it was not in the public interest or, as the law stood, that it was wrong to name a suspect before it could reasonably be expected he would be charged, however famous he might be.

But the way the BBC almost blackmailed the South Yorkshire police into co-operating doesn’t look great. And neither does the schoolboy glee. Now it has to find £850,000 to cover Cliff ’s legal costs and £210,000 in damages – although at the time of going to press the BBC was deciding whether or not to go to the Court of Appeal. But that would put yet more license fee payers’ money at risk. Not god.

The police look naive. The South Yorkshire detective superintendent in charge said they had “no option but to co-operate”. How about saying “OK, what happens if you go on TV saying we’re going to raid his home - and we don’t. How much of a tosser are you going to look?”

But what does this mean for the rest of us? There’s a legal no-man’s land in the 1998 Human Rights Act between the right of privacy and right to free expression. The result is that the law is being made, and the freedom of the press redefined, by single judges.

This is potentially damaging. We have too much secrecy as it is. The world has changed, even if judges haven’t noticed. In the cacophony of social media everything is everywhere anyway, suspects would be named almost instantly, however much you bind the steam-age media limping along behind.

The line between privacy and freedom is one of the most important decisions a civilised society has to make. It’s time it was drawn by parliament and not left to be worked out piecemeal by judges on the basis of individual cases.


The other question is: should the police be investing so much effort investigating historical sex allegations, sometimes against dead people. Recent crime figures showed killings, knife and gun violence rising sharply. The murder rate in London recently overtook New York’s. In only one in ten recorded cases is anybody charged. They’ve got better things to do.


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