The BBC today admitted that the way it reported the police raid on the home of Sir Cliff Richard will make it hard to persuade the Court of Appeal that the High Court was wrong to award the singer heavy damages last month for breach of privacy. Announcing that it will not seek leave to appeal the judgment in Sir Cliff Richard OBE v British Broadcasting Corporation the BBC called on the government to clarify the balance between the rights to privacy and free expression.
Last month’s judgment by Mr Justice Mann condemned the BBC for ’a serious infringement of privacy rights’ by identifying the singer - who was never arrested or charged - as the subject of police investigations. The corporation was ordered to pay £210,000 in general damages.
In a letter to the attorney general published today, the BBC says it had been advised that the High Court judge had made ‘a number of errors of law’. In particular, he ’failed entirely to acknowledge’ previous judicial rulings stressing the public interest in allowing the media to name individuals. The letter cites a 2010 Supreme Court ruling by Lord Rodger in an appeal by the Guardian newspaper against anonymity orders on terrorism suspects as recognition ’at the highest judicial level that reporting the name of a person involved in a public interest story has substantial value for the public’.
It states that, following the Cliff Richard judgment, news organisations will be very reluctant to name a suspect in a criminal investigation on a matter of public interest unless the police are prepared to say, on the record, that they have a good policing reason for doing so. ’There is a fundamental principle of press freedom at stake.’
Despite this, the letter says the BBC has been advised that ’it would be very difficult to persuade the Court of Appeal to isolate the issues of principle from the judge’s findings as to the conduct of the BBC in this case. We understand that the court is likely to say that it is for parliament, not the judiciary, to devise a statutory scheme setting out in detail the balance between competing public interests'.
It calls on the government to ’consider the merits of conducting a review of the state of the law on these issues, including an assessment of the need for primary legislation which will protect the right to report properly and fairly criminal investigations, and to name the person under investigation’.
The BBC has agreed to pay £850,000 towards Sir Cliff Richard's legal costs.