The BBC is proposing to release confidential communications between its journalists and South Yorkshire Police after being angered at comments by the Chief Constable regarding its coverage of the raid on Sir Cliff Richard’s flat.
James Harding, the BBC’s director of news and current affairs, has written to David Crompton, head of the embattled police force which is also under fire over its handling of the Rotherham sex abuse scandal, asking whether he will authorise him to release emails, text messages and the contents of “off-the-record conversations” between the two organisations.
The letter was sent ahead of their joint appearance in front of MPs on Tuesday, in which they are expected to trade accusations about the controversial raid.
It is understood senior executives at the corporation are furious at comments in a letter from Mr Crampton to Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, regarding coverage of a South Yorkshire Police raid on Sir Cliff Richard’s £3.1m Berkshire apartment – broadcast live on the BBC from a helicopter hovering overhead.
Police entered the property during an investigation into allegations that the singer sexually assaulted an underage boy at an event held by American evangelist Billy Graham at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane stadium in 1985. Sir Cliff has denied the claims.
The BBC and the force both faced substantial criticism following the real-time coverage of the raid, with the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC questioning its legality. In a letter to Mr Vaz last month, Mr Crompton said police were forced to co-operate with the BBC after a journalist contacted the force and threatened to “publish a media report about the investigation at the earliest available opportunity”.
He said South Yorkshire Police persuaded the BBC not to go ahead with the story, but promised to give the organisation a “short period of notice” before the raid on Sir Cliff’s flat. It is not known exactly which of Mr Crompton’s statements Mr Harding is keen to dispute in his appearance in front of the select committee. However, the police chief’s letter to Mr Vaz highlights the breakdown of the relationship between the two organisations following criticism of the coverage.
Mr Crompton revealed South Yorkshire Police complained to the corporation following the publication of a critical article on the BBC website which accused the force of a “deliberate attempt to ensure maximum coverage”.
Mr Crompton said this was an attempt by the BBC to “distance itself from what had taken place and cover up the fact that it had initiated contact with the force about this story.” He added: “This was misleading and known by the BBC to be inaccurate.”
Mr Crompton’s letter to Mr Vaz prompted Mr Harding to reply to the police chief on 29 August. In his letter, the BBC boss said: “Our general policy is that we do not reveal the content of off-the-record conversations that occur in the course of our journalism.
“We have so far upheld this position in relation to South Yorkshire Police. But I am prompted to write to you by the particular circumstances in which we now find ourselves. You have made a series of comments about the nature of your force’s engagement with the BBC in a letter to Keith Vaz.
Later he added: “In order that the BBC can answer the questions put by the Home Affairs Select Committee and address the points made in your letter, may we presume that we are free to divulge the nature of the discussions and exchanges that took place between the BBC and South Yorkshire Police?”