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David Keighley: Cliff Richard is guilty until proven innocent thanks to BBC news thugs


Commons Home Affairs Committee chairman Keith Vaz has told the BBC after hearing evidence about the Cliff Richard home search saga that it has done nothing wrong.

Pardon?  Which moral-free universe does he inhabit?

This goes to the heart of journalistic ethics, and he appears to be condoning the worst form of alley-cat behaviour by the BBC.

Let us examine the facts.

A reporter discovered from contacts that South Yorkshire Police were investigating sex abuse claims. When he spoke to them, it emerged that a search of Cliff Richard’s home was being planned as part of their preliminary investigations.

This was a pretty strong story, especially after the Yewtree scalp gained in the conviction of Rolf Harris. It became even stronger when South Yorkshire Police decided that the BBC could record the search.  Why a police force granted such comprehensive access – effectively making it a joint operation – at this stage of an investigation defies belief, but that’s another matter.

Relevant to the BBC’s conduct, though,  is that journalism isn’t just about barging around in pursuit of stories. There is of course a public imperative to expose wrong-doing, but this should be balanced by an understanding that those who are investigated by the police are often unfairly or wrongly accused, with resulting serious damage to their reputations.   ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ is not an empty phrase.

The Corporation has 8,000 journalists and is almost certainly the best-resourced newsroom in the world. In such a gilded cage, ethics and common-sense fairness should not be jettisoned at the drop of hat.

But they were.  The full might of the Corporation’s £1bn a year news budget was deployed and its journalists came out with all their corporate clout.

Even though this was a first-time fishing expedition, even though Richard was not at home, they knew they had exclusive access and they decided to take full advantage by also hiring a helicopter.

It was damn the consequences just to show everyone else that they could beat their rivals to an exclusive.  As I have previously noted, deputy director of news Fran Unsworth has admitted this.

As I have also reported Geoffrey Robertson, a media lawyer of vast experience, thought the treatment – given that this was at  the very early stages of the investigation – was totally over the top, and amounted, in the way that Corporation journalists acted, to ‘a conspiracy to injure’ the singer.

Precisely. These were the actions of street thugs. The BBC news machine sensed blood and decided to go out kicking, scratching and punching to damage the credibility of Richard – a figure of derision at the Corporation for decades because he dares to say he is a Christian and makes music that doesn’t fit the Glastonbury mould.

He may or may not be guilty of the charges that are being investigated; I have no way of knowing either way. What is certain is that the BBC, in a collective act of unprincipled gung-ho recklessness, have put a serious black mark against his name. Thanks to them, he is now – in effect – guilty until proven innocent.

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David Keighley
David Keighley
Former BBC news producer, BBC PR executive and head of corporate relations for TV-am. Director of News-watch.

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