As a tabloid journalist who worked on exposes involving Jimmy Savile, Cyril Smith and Stuart Hall – and many others who never actually got exposed in the Press or, indeed, in the courts – the Cliff Richard debacle has made me wonder, not least about my own acceptance of my profession’s ‘trial-by-torpedo’ mentality.
As a very young reporter I was lucky enough to cover the capture of Peter Sutcliffe, the so-called Yorkshire Ripper. I was manning the Sun’s Manchester newsdesk when a drunken copper called with a tip-off. At the tender age of 21 I was finalising the biggest newspaper in Britain’s place in the press pack which was already descending, first on Hammerton Police Station and then preparing to chase the Black Maria Sutcliffe was incarcerated in to Dewsbury.
Once I was done I drove like a maniac to join my colleagues on this mayhem of expose journalism which would become the final nail in the coffin of cheque-book journalism…
…we’d gone too far you see, bunging a tenner here and a tenner there, tenner after tenner after tenner anywhere to anybody who claimed to know Sutcliffe, his wife Sonia or any of his victims. (In all honesty cheque book journalism continues today but under a veneer of buy-ups.)
So, we descended on Sutcliffe’s hunting ground like locusts, photographing and making notes, devouring anything we could before regurgitating it as a melange of lies, half-truths and speculation stretched on a skeleton of hard facts.
We didn’t know or care if Sutcliffe was guilty or not.
And in the last 30 years I have to admit I’ve done the same things again and again, doorstepping celebrities, politicians, businessmen, criminals and even the man on the street who had lost his way and made mistakes. They were all suspected of committing some kind of crime of course.
That’s what investigative journalism is about you see, getting a tip off, sinking your incisors into it, investigating it and then, if you can, exposing it and the ‘perp’ …
Or, and this is probably the most important thing, dropping the story entirely, if the tip-off is wrong. I can honestly say I have never exposed anybody for anything they haven’t done.
And there lies the fundamental ethic of journalism.
But going back to 1981 in Yorkshire and comparing it with Cliff’s problems in 2014 in well-off Sunningdale near Windsor … there is one inalienable connecting tissue:
Back in 81, in Sutcliffe’s case, the police told every national newspaper in the country where they were holding their suspect – and remember that’s exactly what he was at that point, a suspect.
But the police were desperate for the glory of arresting one of the most horrific murderers in British history.
In simple terms they wanted the world to know they had done a good job after he and a number of hoaxers had run circles around them for years.
And that’s where my worry lies – undoubtedly police actions can prejudice fair trials. Well-publicised arrests and dramatic B-movie home raids can only turn the minds of the public.
This is why the police carried out the raid on Cliff’s palatial home on that fateful day knowing full-well that the star was actually sunning himself in Spain 2,000 miles away.
Cliff’s problem was that someone had claimed he had abused him at a Billy Graham Christian rally in 1985 where Cliff was appearing as a special guest.
The geriatric star immediately and quite rightly denied it all.
So, to the first question, as asked by Peter Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday. Why did any magistrate ‘with any self-respect’ agree to a warrant which so obviously was a major invasion of a celebrities privacy over such an allegation?
Hitchens, a journalist and author, said: “An allegation, especially of abuse, will ruin the accused person’s reputation forever because millions of people wrongly believe the silly old saying that there is no smoke without fire. He will probably have to spend his entire life savings to fight it. Even if a jury throws out the charges, he will not get a penny of that back. How can this possibly be just? It cannot be, yet we permit it.”
The next question has to be then, why would the police – who are there to protect us, not pillory us – become so hysterically publicity hungry that they too would completely discount the affect their actions were about to have on this rather odd little man’s public and private life?
Surely, if the publicity value of these kinds of raids and high-profile arrests weren’t there for the police, then they wouldn’t behave in this way. In other words, if you’re not going to get your conglomerate bloated bragging face on telly and in the papers, then why bother?
Hitchens suggests the simple provision, that such searches may be made public only if the accused person gives written permission, saying he believe that the police, deprived of the oxygen of publicity, will simply stop behaving in this way.
But of course that kills off the immediacy of the news in an era when the world has come to expect a 24hr rolling news service which gives every cough and spit of everything that happens every minute of the day.
And more worryingly for me is that it would only kill it off in the UK and we would become an island gagging on its choking free speech while all around it the rest of the world shouts from the troughs of the gutter and the peaks of the lawless internet.
One way or the other, with this ruling and the attitude of a leading journalist
the people of the UK would lose out on their right to know what is happening in the world around them.
South Yorkshire Police had this to say about Cliff: “The force apologises wholeheartedly for the additional anxiety caused by our initial handling of the media interest in this case and has implemented the learning from this and the subsequent review conducted by former Chief Constable Andy Trotter.
“Following an initial allegation received by the force in April 2014, South Yorkshire detectives have explored and gathered all information available and carried out a thorough and detailed investigation, which has covered the UK and abroad.
“The investigation, which has spanned two years, is estimated to have cost in the region of £800,000, including staffing costs.”
As Hitchens – a man of Marmite qualities just like Cliff – points out that these kinds of raids bring ‘other victims’ out of the woodwork. And that actually is a defence I have often glibly used when faced with the dilemma of to expose or not to expose.
Hitchens asked this simple question: “Why can they not come forward when the accused is formally charged and arrested?”
It’s a fair question but one loaded once again towards the stifling of robust free speech and reporting.
And so to the whipping boys in all this – the BBC and journalism generally.
Should the BBC have been there?
The answer has to be yes … they were invited by police who appeared to be totally confident in their actions. And it was a big story involving a celebrity who had allowed speculation about his sexuality to bring him publicity for decades.
So, did the BBC go over the top? Yes, let’s be honest, was their really any need for a helicopter?
The BBC said this: “We have thought long and hard about how we covered the story. On reflection there are things we would have done differently, however the judge has ruled that the very naming of Sir Cliff was unlawful. So even had the BBC not used helicopter shots or ran the story with less prominence, the Judge would still have found that the story was unlawful; despite ruling that what we broadcast about the search was accurate.
“This judgement creates new case law and represents a dramatic shift against press freedom and the long-standing ability of journalists to report on police investigations, which in some cases has led to further complainants coming forward.
“This impacts not just the BBC, but every media organisation.
“This isn’t just about reporting on individuals. It means police investigations, and searches of people’s homes, could go unreported and unscrutinised. It will make it harder to scrutinise the conduct of the police and we fear it will undermine the wider principle of the public’s right to know. It will put decision-making in the hands of the police.
On this Mr Justice Mann, the judge at the trial, said: ‘I find that Sir Cliff had privacy rights in respect of the police investigation and that the BBC infringed those rights without a legal justification.
‘It did so in a serious way and also in a somewhat sensationalist way. I have rejected the BBC’s case that it was justified in reporting as it did under its rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.’
And so to my job as a tabloid investigator.
Mr Justice Mann has raised fears among lawyers and news outlets that the media’s tradition of factually reporting the details of pre-charge investigations is now under threat. Remember, nobody said the BBC had got factually wrong
One editor said the case has “potentially huge, and perhaps constitutional, implications”, especially for those in positions of power and influence who could once again bury their peccadilloes under the impenetrable cloak and wig of our courts.
And yet there still has to be a clear public interest to naming suspects since witnesses often only come forward when another person has already “put their head above the parapet”.
Witness my own battle to expose BBC presenter and paedophile Stuart Hall.
In his case of course police and media actions were well and truly justified.
Tony Gallagher, the editor of the Sun, has warned that “suspects will assert privacy rights” in a bid to stop coverage.
And Cliff Richard himself, said: “I just hope the press don’t think the freedom of speech is in danger here. It’s not. It’s their abuse of it that’s in danger. That’s what I’ll always fight.
“The worst thing [the BBC] did, the most disastrous thing they did, which has now been ruled by the judge, the most unlawful thing they did was to name me before I was charged.”
So, where do we go from here? Is this all about the diminishment of the press in the UK by the powers-that-be?
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