BBC faces corruption allegation over its Cliff Richard police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as Director General  is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home

Some 55 years after a teenage Cliff Richard first appeared before the BBC’s cameras on the short-lived music show Drumbeat, the corporation afforded the singer a far more spectacular production last week – when he wasn’t even present.

It dispatched a helicopter to hover over Sir Cliff’s Berkshire home and stationed its reporters at the singer’s gates before South Yorkshire Police had even arrived to raid the premises, following an accusation of sex abuse in 1985.

Tonight that coverage – at first regarded as a notable scoop – had the potential to escalate into the first crisis for BBC News in the tenure of current Director General Tony Hall, who has been summoned to explain himself by the Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs. Committee chairman Keith Vaz has demanded answers to a series of nine questions on how the BBC came to know about the raid.

Nick Herbert, the former policing minister, has gone as far as suggesting that police force and the broadcaster may have acted in a corrupt way.

Video: Coverage of Cliff Richards' home being searched

The BBC has received close to 600 complaints over the tone of its coverage. Of these, 255 expressed concern about how the BBC knew about the raid, 197 thought the BBC had given the story too much coverage and 107 felt the broadcaster suggested the singer was guilty. An additional 35 people complained that the BBC’s use of a helicopter was too intrusive or a waste of money. The veteran broadcaster Michael Parkinson has compared the BBC’s reporting to a “witch hunt” that “would have done the red tops credit”.

When Lord Hall arrived at the BBC in the wake of the Savile scandal, the task of restoring confidence in BBC News was at the top of his in-tray. Yet the BBC newsroom is under pressure like never before. Only last month, James Harding, the BBC’s Director of News and Current Affairs, announced the cutting of 415 posts. Morale is low.


The Independent has been told that more than 750 staff – more than one in seven of BBC journalists – have inquired about redundancy terms. But as resources are cut, Mr Harding, the former editor of The Times, is anxious the BBC gets more scoops. In a speech last December, he told his staff: “Above all, I want us to have the confidence, the resources and the time to devote to more of the BBC’s own, original journalism.”

Sir Cliff Richard has denied the allegation of abuse Sir Cliff Richard has denied the allegation of abuse (Getty)

To many observers, the BBC’s coverage of the raid was both extraordinary and disproportionate. As the news chopper looked down on the police operation, the writer and journalist Tony Parsons tweeted: “Memo to the BBC – Sir Cliff Richard should really, really not be the lead item on your world news. They are burying children alive in Iraq.”

Other users of social media wondered why rival news outlets appeared behind on the story. The answer was that the BBC had made an arrangement with South Yorkshire Police to be present on the raid. Journalists at Sky News were left scrambling to confirm the story with police as the BBC broadcast remarkable aerial footage of officers searching the property.

The story was a triumph for Dan Johnson, the BBC News reporter for the North-east and Cumbria, who had the original tip on the planned raid. According to a statement later issued by South Yorkshire Police: “The force was contacted some weeks ago by a BBC reporter who made it clear he knew of the existence of an investigation. It was clear he [was] in a position to publish it.”

There seems to have been – at the least – naivety on the force’s part. The BBC, in the wake of its disastrous false association of Lord McAlpine with paedophilia, would surely not have risked jeopardising a police operation by prematurely speculating that the singer was accused of sex abuse.

The BBC’s coverage of the raid must be seen in the historical context of its failures in reporting Savile and the recent stifling of media coverage of another disgraced former BBC presenter, Rolf Harris. In that December speech, Harding urged his staff to be bold: “Our response to Savile and McAlpine should not be that we shy away from investigative reporting and the coverage of difficult issues. In fact, we must renew our commitment to curious, inquisitive journalism in the public interest.”

That was a difficult challenge at a time when the BBC is anxious not to make more reporting blunders as it sets out its case for an improved licence fee settlement in its next Royal Charter. Staff working for the major current affairs shows, Panorama and Newsnight, speak of an atmosphere of caution as Lord Hall goes about his task of ensuring the BBC’s future.

But in the main newsroom, the Sir Cliff tip-off must have seemed a perfect opportunity to meet Harding’s demand for more scoops. The Director of News was away last week and it fell to his deputy, Fran Unsworth, to sign off on the story. The coverage was overseen by Jonathan Munro, the BBC’s Head of Newsgathering – newly recruited by Harding from ITV News, which has a reputation for being more gung-ho than the BBC in its treatment of exclusives. The ITV approach was exemplified by its explicit coverage of the murderers of Lee Rigby in Woolwich, which won the award for best news coverage at this year’s Baftas, to the chagrin of BBC news executives.

Keith Vaz is looking for answers to nine questions he put to the BBC about the broadcast Keith Vaz is looking for answers to nine questions he put to the BBC about the broadcast (Getty)
Some BBC journalists were pleased to see the corporation being first with the Sir Cliff story. “I don’t think there will be a lot of hand-wringing about this,” said one. “If the BBC is going to be taken seriously as the place where people come first for news then you need to be discovering interesting things that other people don’t have.”

Senior BBC figures are anxious that Lord Hall stands up to the Home Affairs committee, and they believe Mr Vaz has over-stepped the mark with his aggressive questions, including: “Who authorised a news helicopter to be launched to cover the search and on what information did they make this decision?” One senior BBC source said: “This is another example of the complete failure of politicians to appreciate the editorial independence of the BBC.”

Nonetheless, the BBC’s handling of the story has drawn criticism from quarters where it usually finds sympathy. Joan Smith, executive director of Hacked Off, which normally reserves its criticism for the tabloids, said there were “questions to answer” for the BBC. “The Leveson report recommended that briefings to the press should be handled ‘through open and transparent procedures’, which clearly did not happen here,” she said.

For human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC, the force treated Sir Cliff “as though he were a murderer or bank robber” and the BBC should have owned up earlier to its involvement in the process. “Unethically, in my view, it suppressed this important news for three days.” Martin Moore, director of the Media Standards Trust, said the scale of the BBC’s coverage was a result of the access the broadcaster was given by the police.

“I’m afraid in this instance their tabloid instincts got the better of them,” said Steven Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster. “[The coverage] didn’t need to be with helicopters and leading on all the bulletins.” He conceded that the BBC was in a difficult place. “Either they’re accused of sitting on a scoop and it’s Savile all over again or they’re accused of tabloid tactics."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant - Immediate Start - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant - Immediate ...

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - Sheffield - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer position with a...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Advertising Sales Consultant - OTE £30k

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Gloucestershire's most innovati...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders