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Andrew Tettenborn: Cliff Richard outrage shows BBC truly believes it is the Oracle


There are a sort of men whose visages

Do cream and mantle like a standing pond,

And do a wilful stillness entertain

With purpose to be dressed in an opinion

Of wisdom, gravity, profound conceit,

As who should say, “I am Sir Oracle,

And when I ope my lips, let no dog bark!”

(Merchant of Venice; Act 1, Scene 1)

Which organisation regards it as its God-given right to intrude on the private life and property of a respectable citizen for the entertainment of others, to cosy up to the police with a view to getting preferential treatment, to brush off any criticism of these activities and generally to act as a law unto itself? No prizes for guessing, I’m afraid: it’s the BBC we know and love.

TCW readers may remember watching graphic live television footage, including aerial shots, in August 2014 of the South Yorkshire police staging an ostentatious surprise search of the Berkshire home of born-again Christian and otherwise morally-unblemished Cliff Richard (who was away at the time and knew nothing of it). The basis was antique and, as it turned out, unsubstantiated charges of child abuse connected with the controversial Operation Yewtree. The BBC, it turned out, had found out about the allegations against the singer, approached the police, and been given the benefit of an exclusive tip-off and scoop.

The singer has sued the BBC and the police, essentially for deliberately turning his private affairs into a public spectacle. Last Friday, during a skirmish in this legal war of the titans, the BBC was asked an embarrassing question: where had it originally got the highly sensitive information about Sir Cliff? Had it been pumping someone, somewhere, in Yewtree? The judge, overruling a prim objection that this was a request to reveal journalistic sources and sagely observing that a Yes or No carried no danger whatever of unmasking any individual mole, directed the BBC to answer. It did, unwillingly. The response wasn’t public, but we can guess what it was, since the police that very day settled with Sir Cliff for a largish sum, doubtless realising that they had no answer to an allegation of a nasty little mutual back-scratching operation with the BBC to publicise private investigations.

This is merely the latest episode in a saga that provides a neat little vignette of the way the BBC operates. The Corporation’s response following the police surrender was itself telling: despite admitting to an entirely improper arrangement with a police informant for which the police themselves had accepted liability, and which had led to the trashing of the reputation of an innocent man, it would continue to defend itself “vigorously” from claims by Sir Cliff. How it will do this was not revealed. Perhaps it will say, like Eve, that it was all the police’s fault for putting it up to it. (If it does so it will at least at least one supporter: the redoubtable Keith Vaz MP had earlier said piously that it was unacceptable that a search of a private house should be broadcast live, but had again put all the blame on the police and exonerated the BBC). But don’t worry, it’s only licence payers’ money going to pay the lawyers to guard our backs.

Moreover, this self-righteous “we are always right” view is not new. On the contrary: it is entirely in character. Last year Director-General Tony Hall self-importantly refused to apologise to Sir Cliff for turning the intrusion on his home into a form of public entertainment. The year before the BBC had gone further and added insult to injury by submitting the footage of the raid to fellow luvvies at the Royal Television Society for the 2015 Scoop of the Year award (it didn’t win). To a naive suggestion that flying expensive helicopters over private property to film the execution of a search warrant was, shall we say, excessive, there came a dead-pan denial from Tony Hall to the Home Affairs Select Committee: “The reporter was told by South Yorkshire police it would be difficult to get good shots from the ground, the operational decision was then taken to use a helicopter. … “It was a proper story for us to cover, in the right matter, proportionately, which I think is what we did.” (!).

What of the fact that the helicopter almost certainly trespassed on or over Sir Cliff’s property (the house is set back some way and the shots were close)? No one has raised that yet, but the BBC’s own rules on what they call “tag-along” raids may give the answer. True, BBC apparatchiks are expected to “obtain consent from the legal occupier”; but they then say that there may be an exception “where we have reason to believe [a] public interest will justify our continued recording or presence.” In other words, we sort of regard ourselves as bound by the law of the land, but reserve the right to break it and go where we like on someone else’s property if we think it’s in the public interest.

Any surprise that people wonder why they should be forced to pay a licence fee to such an organisation?

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Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law at a well-known UK university, who also teaches in Europe and elsewhere. In the 2001 General Election he stood as Ukip’s candidate in Bath.

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