The BBC has been accused of breaching a notification agreement it has with ITN by not informing its rivals ITV News that it was using a news helicopter on the morning it covered a raid on the home of Sir Cliff Richard, following a deal struck by the corporation with South Yorkshire Police.
The news helicopter is shared by the BBC with ITV in order to save money, but each broadcaster is obliged under a written agreement to tell the other if it intends to deploy the resource.
The failure by BBC News to honour that agreement is an indication of the importance attached to the story by the broadcaster and its determination to protect its exclusive.
"They were so paranoid about losing the story that they even breached the contract," said a source. BBC sources disputed the idea that the decision not to notify ITV amounted to a legal breach of contract.
The BBC has faced criticism for its deployment of a news helicopter and the scale of its coverage as police arrived at the Berkshire residence. Its secretive deployment of the aircraft will add to the impression that the raid was regarded as an award-winning scoop which demanded dramatic coverage, even though Sir Cliff had not been arrested, let alone charged with any offence.
Vi0deo: Aerial view of Cliff Richard's house being searched
Among a list of nine questions posed by Keith Vaz, chair of the Commons Home Affairs committee to Lord Hall, director general of the BBC, was: "Who authorised a news helicopter to be launched to cover the search and on what information did they make this decision?"
Sources at ITN said the sight of aerial shots of Sir Cliff's home as the BBC broke the story caused "consternation" and surprise. Although the BBC, which has a majority stake in the news helicopter, was not obliged to disclose details of the story this was the first time the agreement to give notification of use of the aircraft had been breached. It is understood that ITN pays tens of thousands of pounds a year for its minority share in the use of the aircraft.
As IT broadcast the pictures from the news helicopter at the start of its 1pm news bulletin, the BBC shared the footage with ITV News and, unusually, did not charge for it. In a statement it said it had gone out of its way to help ITN.
“We were dealing with a sensitive breaking news story and made the decision to send up the helicopter to prerecord footage which we would share with ITN," said a BBC spokesperson. "We sent them the helicopter material when we broke the story at 1300 – 30 minutes before their lunchtime news at 1330. We organised the recording and distribution specifically so their lunchtime news would get the footage.”