The BBC must accept it got it wrong over Cliff Richard, and hope reporting is unscathed

Today’s judgement on the star’s case against the BBC over it’s reporting of his arrest is a sad one..

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There are few happy endings in the law courts, and today’s judgement on Cliff Richard’s case against the BBC is a sad one. For Sir Cliff, an innocent man put through the mill, there is at least financial compensation for what must have been a considerable ordeal; but for the BBC there is a judicial thumping in a case that executives thought they were going to win.

Before the case, the corporation was briefing about what was at stake: fundamental issues around the freedom to report a matter of public interest. One senior figure argued that if the BBC lost then it would not be able to cover accusations against the likes of Harvey Weinstein – which always felt like an over-extrapolation, but it seemed to be what the BBC believed and the reason it said it was fighting on. It has reiterated those principles in its statement today.

However, there were divisions about the corporation’s case among many of its own employees. One presenter said he had watched “aghast” when large swathes of BBC airtime were devoted to helicopter shots looking into Sir Cliff’s apartment – and many rank and file producers were uneasy about what they saw as disproportionate coverage for a case where there had to be a legal presumption of innocence. It brought the privacy argument under the strongest of spotlights. Among the BBC’s old guard, there was even less support: they felt this was a very un-BBC approach to journalism, and there was incredulity about entering the coverage for scoop of the year in the RTS awards. I also didn’t find a single member of the public saying “good on the BBC for doing this”, and instead there was bafflement about why it was putting Sir Cliff through a legal process.

It’s too early to give a definitive read-out on the consequences of the judgement. There is understandable concern about the judge’s views on naming of an individual, while I have some scepticism about his allocation of responsibility between South Yorkshire Police and the BBC. But for the BBC there was always an editorial test alongside the legal one: was it right, as the flagship broadcaster in Britain and the setter of standards, to offer such extensive and intrusive coverage of police enquiries on a private property? Some BBC executives didn’t seek to defend the prominence of the Cliff Richard story in their output, but it was always going to be a tougher fight about a lead story done in such exhaustive detail than it would have been if they’d reported it less sensationally and in a more sensible place in a running order.

It would be wrong for anyone to be under pressure to resign about what happened, because they were pursuing daily journalism – in which errors are inevitable and judgements have to be made against deadlines, though this is a reminder of how real people are then caught up in the media ferment. But the mystery is why the corporation has been so reluctant to admit that it might not have got this right. I knew and admired Tony Hall as my boss in BBC News in the 1990s, and the Tony Hall then would have had 40 fits about this kind of coverage. Yet he defended it unequivocally early on in front of a parliamentary committee, and there has been no flicker of editorial doubt expressed until the director of news Fran Unsworth said today that “on reflection there are things we would have done differently”.

Now, the BBC is saying it may appeal. I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a wise former member of the BBC executive board who expressed the profound hope that, if the corporation lost, it wouldn’t seek to throw even more money and effort at the case. “Accept the lessons, accept they got it wrong” was the advice. It may yet be that reporting as we know it will be radically changed by this case, but the BBC has clearly not persuaded the judges and its wider constituency of this argument – and it risks even more goodwill if it persists and loses again. 

 

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.