Back in 2014, immediately after the BBC mounted dramatic coverage of a police raid on the home of Sir Cliff Richard in connection with an alleged sexual crime, director of BBC news Fran Unsworth – then in the deputy role – attempted to justify the Corporation’s actions.
As was reported at the time by TCW, she solemnly maintained that the ‘sensational’ headline reports, complete with helicopter shots, were legitimate journalism. Her reason? Never mind Sir Cliff’s expectation of privacy. Everything was justified because the BBC was under pressure from its competitors and needed to deliver to audiences ‘exclusive’ stories. In other words, in the world of the BBC journalism, the end justifies the means.
This cold, one-dimensional and self-interested reaction from Ms Unsworth has characterised every element of the BBC’s defence of the raid and subsequent developments, though now the BBC’s stance has been embroidered with claims that it was right to name Sir Cliff in the interests of press freedom.
In this instance, that meant naming a suspect before he was questioned, arrested or charged on the slenderest of evidence from thirty years previously, obtained from a still unnamed source.
Mr Justice Mann’s High Court judgment last month, of course, blew Ms Unsworth’s posturing to shreds. He declared that the BBC staff involved had been obsessed with getting and protecting a scoop, had acted deviously both in the build-up to the raid and subsequently as court proceedings unfolded, that the coverage had been ‘sensationalist’, and that overall, the BBC had blatantly breached Sir Cliff’s right to privacy.
As the Corporation still obdurately considers an appeal against the verdict, former BBC Chairman Lord Grade has now stepped into the row.
In a stinging rebuke of every aspect of the Corporation’s handling of the raid, he has written in the Times (behind a paywall, but reported here) that the BBC’s decision to ‘reveal so dramatically that Cliff Richard was the suspect’ marked a historic low in its journalism, and that those involved should hang their heads in shame.
Lord Grade accepted that the issues raised by the Sir Cliff case in relation to the tension between an individual’s privacy and press freedom might bear further examination. But he then slated the ‘arrogant irresponsibility’ which had motivated the coverage, and added: ‘We shouldn’t be fooled by the BBC’s leap to the moral high ground of defending the public interest. It is a piece of shameless spin that deflects from its grievous journalistic lapses. In revealing Cliff Richard’s name, the BBC displayed no higher purpose than securing a scoop, whatever the human cost.’
Winding up, Lord Grade then turned his fire on Lord Hall, the BBC director general, and the BBC Board of Management. He said: ‘If there is a higher principle at stake, why is the editor-in-chief of the BBC, its director-general Lord Hall of Birkenhead, like Macavity, nowhere to be seen or heard? Why was he not on the steps of the court after the judgment? What and when did he know about the decision to launch helicopters and collude with the police? Is he proud of the scoop?
‘The ultimate custodian of the public interest in the BBC is its publicly appointed board. What action are they demanding over this shameful episode? Is there not a public interest in explaining their position to their paymasters, the licence-fee payers? It’s time the BBC Board spoke out about one of the most shocking lapses in the history of BBC journalism. It’s not too late for the BBC hierarchy to exercise some judgment.’
These are grave observations and charges. The reality is that Mr Justice Mann’s verdict on the BBC’s conduct focuses upon deep faults in the BBC’s modus operandi. He found that the reporter involved, Dan Johnson, deliberately misled South Yorkshire Police over the amount of information he had about Sir Cliff, thereby bulldozing them into allowing BBC cameras to film the raid.
In court, the BBC staff involved defended their own actions, while seeking to project that any lapses in judgment were the fault of the police. In so doing, they were prepared to trash the reputations and honesty of all the individual police personnel involved.
Lord Grade’s intervention means that two former Chairmen of the BBC have now lined up to attack it. Lord Patten said soon after the verdict that the Corporation would be ‘crazy’ to appeal, adding that this was ‘not BBC journalism at its best’.
In organisations other than the BBC, against such pressure, the board would probably now be asking for resignations, or even sacking the people responsible for making and defending such patently suspect judgments.
Is that now on the cards from the BBC Board of Management, chaired by the former banker Sir David Clementi? Are they asking for scalps? In the 18 months since his appointment, Sir David has made virtually no public pronouncements and is probably the most low-profile BBC Chairman ever. Like Lord Hall, he is conspicuous by his absence.
So don’t hold your breath.