Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Keith Vaz assumes role of guarding the guardians


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Indy Politics

Today the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire, David Crompton, and a BBC team led by the chairman Lord Hall disagreed at a Commons Home Affairs Committee over almost every salient point about the run-up to the TV coverage of the raid on Sir Cliff Richard’s home. It says something about the relative standing of the two institutions that the MPs had no hesitation in believing the BBC.

In the version of Mr Crompton, whose day this definitely wasn’t, his mighty force was pressured by a determined BBC reporter – “blackmail is a very strong word”, said the policeman, without explicitly denying it was appropriate – into inviting them to cover the raid to stop them running a premature story “which would have impeded our investigation”. The journalist, Dan Johnson, knew all about the case. And he had told South Yorkshire the “leak” had come from the Met’s Operation Yewtree. And no, Mr Crompton had not considered appealing to higher BBC authority because of several cases where “the media” had ignored such calls and “decided to publish anyway”.

In the BBC version, Mr Johnson didn’t have a story – only a name – until he learnt the details from South Yorkshire Police. He categorically denied saying that the Met’s Operation Yewtree was the original source. And, said Lord Hall, had South Yorkshire contacted him or the head of news, James Harding, to say it would hamper the investigation, “we would not have run the story”.

The committee’s chairman Keith Vaz kept referring to the highly experienced Mr Johnson as a “junior” reporter. What he really meant was that he couldn’t be important because he worked in the North.

But when an imperious Mr Vaz said the committee was amazed at the force’s “sheer incompetence” no one demurred. There are valid questions about whether the huge coverage given to the raid by the BBC was really justified. But this was largely obscured by Mr Crompton’s unhappy performance.

It may seem odd that an incomplete investigation is already being investigated. But that ignores the quasi-constitutional role assumed by Mr Vaz. In 2014 Britain the answer to Juvenal’s age-old question “who will guard the guards themselves?” is beginning to look like Keith Vaz. He may not be everyone’s ideal choice, to put it mildly, for the job. But someone has to do it.