Cliff Richard has won his privacy case against the BBC and will be awarded an initial payment of £210,000 in damages, over the broadcaster’s report that the singer was being investigated about historical child sexual assault claims.
In a decision that the BBC warned represented a serious blow to press freedom, Mr Justice Mann awarded Richard £190,000 damages. The singer was awarded a further £20,000 in aggravated damages for the corporation’s decision to nominate its story for the Royal Television Society’s scoop of the year award.
The judgment, handed down in central London on Wednesday morning, came almost four years after the BBC broke the news that South Yorkshire police had searched the singer’s home in relation to the accusation.
The BBC said it would appeal again the decision.
The singer appeared in court to hear the verdict, accompanied by his friends Gloria Hunniford and Paul Gambaccini. Reacting to the judgment afterwards, Richard said: “I’m choked up. I can’t believe it. It’s wonderful news.”
He 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.”
Further damages relating to the financial impact on Richard – resulting from cancelled book deals and public appearances – are yet to be assessed but could be substantial.
The ruling will have enormous implications for how the British media reports on ongoing police investigations where no charges have been brought, with newspaper editors and media lawyers saying the ruling is tantamount to new legislation.
The judge was critical of the BBC and the decision to push out the story without a response from the singer in order to scoop rival outlets, adding that its coverage – which included flying a helicopter over the singer’s Berkshire home – had been “somewhat sensationalist”.
But Mann made clear it was the simple decision to factually identify Richard as the individual under investigation – in line with previous standard British journalistic practice – that prompted his decision.
The BBC warned that the judgment created new case law and represented a “dramatic shift” against the ability of journalists to report on police investigations.
Following the ruling, the Conservative MP Anna Soubry, a former journalist, asked Theresa May in the House of Commons whether it was time for the government to consider introducing “Cliff’s Law” banning the naming of criminal suspects by the media until they are charged. The prime minister said it was a difficult issue, since publication of a suspect’s name sometimes encouraged other witnesses to come forward.
The BBC’s director of news, Fran Unsworth, apologised to Richard and said there were elements of its coverage that should have been handled differently. But she warned about the wider consequences of the ruling 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.”
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.”
Other news outlets also raised concerns about the impact on their reporting.
“Arrests will go unpublicised,” said Tony Gallagher, the editor of the Sun. “Suspects will assert privacy rights. Police probes impeded. Victory for (alleged) criminals and money-grabbing lawyers. Terrible for media.”
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 BBC 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 that he sexually assaulted a young boy following a Billy Graham rally in Sheffield in 1985, 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.
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.
The singer had already settled out of court with South Yorkshire police for £400,000 before the start of the trial, although the judge ruled that the police could be responsible for 35% of any further damages.
The police worked with the BBC and provided the broadcaster with advance knowledge of the raid. This followed an approach by one of the corporation’s journalists, who had learned of the investigation.