The Society of Editors has reacted to news that the BBC is not to challenge the verdict in the Sir Cliff Richards privacy case by calling on parliament to consider the threat now posed to press freedom.
The BBC announced today it would not be appealing the decision by Mr Justice Mann in the High Court who found the corporation had breached the privacy rights of the entertainer when it reported he was under investigation for an alleged historical child sex abuse claim. The singer was never arrested or charged with any offence and the court ruled it was unlawful to have even named him as a suspect.
The BBC’s application to Mr Justice Mann for the case to go to appeal was rejected and today the broadcaster said it would not make an independent challenge.
“It is unfortunate but, in many ways, understandable that the BBC has decided it will not pursue an appeal in this case, but it is important, if not vital, that the central issue of what is at risk here for the liberties and freedoms in this country is not lost in this decision,” commented Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society of Editors.
“The decision that it is unlawful for the media – as well as the public of course – to identify someone under investigation by the police is a major change to not only press freedom to report what those in authority are doing, but also to the public’s right to know and open justice here in the UK.
“These are serious issues and should not be decided by the verdict in one celebrity court case, no matter how high profile. Parliament should now urgently consider whether such a step towards individual privacy against the protection of society’s overall liberties is acceptable. At risk is whether the balance between such issues which underpin individual rights and freedom of expression in our liberal democracy has now been altered to the detriment of us all.”
The BBC has announced it will be writing to the Attorney General regarding the issue and the Society of Editors has announced it will also be making a representation of its own.
“The Society recognises that the sympathies of the public may well be strongly with Sir Cliff on this issue and in this particular case, but there are bigger issues at stake that, if unchallenged, will affect the liberties of all citizens,” added Murray.
Mr Justice Mann concluded last month that the BBC’s coverage of the investigation into Sir Cliff – which involved a helicopter filming the search of his Berkshire home – had been a “very serious” invasion of privacy.
In a statement today, the BBC said that the ruling would limit the long-standing ability of journalists to report on police investigations, many cases of which have resulted in further complainants coming forward. Having taken extensive legal advice on the prospect of a successful appeal, the Corporation said that although it believed that the judge erred in law in finding that broadcasters and journalists have no right to publish the name of a person who is the subject of a criminal investigation, it would be difficult to persuade the Court of Appeal to isolate this issue of principle from the judge’s broader findings in this case.
The statement added: “At best, an appeal could recognise that the judge made an error of law on the important issue of the media being able to name suspects, but is unlikely to overturn his overall decision given all the other factual findings made against the BBC. This would still leave much uncertainty about what the media can legitimately report. At worst, the Court of Appeal could endorse the findings of the trial judge.
“Given this advice the BBC will not be appealing. It would inevitably mean an expensive legal cul de sac and one that would simply prolong Sir Cliff’s distress. Instead the BBC is writing today to ask the Government to consider a review of the law in this important area to protect the right to properly and fairly report criminal investigations, and to name the person under investigation. There is a fundamental principle of press freedom at stake here and one upon which we believe Parliament, as our lawmakers, should decide.”
The ruling last month saw Mr Justice Mann award Sir Cliff £190,000 damages and an extra £20,000 in aggravated damages after the BBC submitted its coverage of the raid for an award.
The BBC was told to pay 65% of the £190,000 and South Yorkshire Police 35%.
The BBC also agreed to pay Sir Cliff £850,000 towards his legal costs.
South Yorkshire Police had earlier agreed to pay Sir Cliff £400,000 after settling a claim he brought against the force.
The full BBC statement can be read in full here.