World News

Cliff Richard, British Pop Star, Wins Privacy Suit Against BBC

Posted July 18, 2018 11:01 a.m. EDT

LONDON — Cliff Richard, a British singer and pop star, was awarded about $280,000 in damages by the High Court on Wednesday after bringing legal action against the BBC, which he had accused of a “serious invasion” of his privacy with its reporting of a police raid on his home in 2014.

The raid followed a sexual allegation against Richard, 77, relating to a teenage boy in the 1980s. Richard has always strongly denied the accusation and no charges were ever brought against him.

British journalists and news executives expressed concern about the precedent established by the ruling, saying it would have profound repercussions for their freedom to report criminal cases because it could make it illegal to identify suspects before they are formally charged by the police.

BBC reporters covered the 2014 raid closely, using a helicopter hovering over the singer’s apartment in Sunningdale, west of London. Richard, who was knighted as Sir Cliff Richard in 1995 and who spends much of his time at residences in Barbados and Portugal, was in Portugal at the time.

According to the judgment, Richard did not know of the accusation against him before the BBC report. He has said he watched the raid on a news broadcast showing police officers combing through his apartment.

“I felt confused, disturbed and very upset,” he said in evidence to the High Court, adding: “My health suffered both mentally and physically.”

In his ruling Wednesday in support of the singer, Judge Anthony Mann said that Richard would receive a total of 210,000 pounds, roughly $280,000, in damages.

The BBC, Britain’s public broadcaster, was ordered to pay the bulk of the damages. South Yorkshire Police, which carried out the raid, had already agreed to pay damages worth 400,000 pounds.

The raid, in August 2014, was part of a broad investigation, known as Operation Yewtree, into child sex abuse allegations from decades earlier, many involving celebrities. The operation began in the wake of a scandal concerning Jimmy Savile, a BBC television presenter who was exposed after his death as having been a serial sex offender.

Prosecutors said in 2016 that there was not enough evidence to justify criminal charges against Richard, one of Britain’s best-known entertainers, with a career spanning some 60 years.

Mann said the BBC had infringed Richard’s privacy rights “without a legal justification.”

“It did so in a serious and also in a somewhat sensationalist way,” the judge said, adding that he had rejected the BBC’s argument that its reporting was justified “under its rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.”

The judge said Richard’s life had been “hugely affected for almost two years by loss of public status and reputation, embarrassment, stress, upset and hurt, with some consequential health effects.”

Richard, whose name at birth in 1940 was Harry Webb, hugged supporters and wept when the judge delivered his ruling, according to reporters in the courtroom. Outside, some of Richard’s supporters sang “Congratulations,” one of his hit songs in Britain, where he was once promoted as the country’s equivalent to Elvis Presley.

One of the issues raised by the case was the question of whether reporters in Britain should be free to cite accusations against individuals before the police had filed charges.

Gideon Benaim, Richard’s lawyer, said the case had also raised “serious questions” over the BBC’s scrutiny of its journalists who, he said, had placed exclusive coverage ahead of his client’s right to privacy. He denied the BBC’s assertion that its reporters, who had apparently been tipped off by the police about the raid in 2014, were acting in the public interest.

The ruling drew sharp protests from the BBC and from other news outlets. Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s director of news, called the outcome a “significant shift against press freedom.”

“This means police investigations and searches of people’s homes could go unreported and unscrutinized,” she told reporters. “It will put decision-making about naming individuals in the hands of the police over the public’s right to know.”

“We don’t believe this is compatible with liberty and press freedoms,” she added.

Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, an advocacy group, said the ruling imperiled the ability of journalists to monitor police conduct.

“The ruling to make it unlawful that anyone under investigation can be named is a major step and one that has worrying consequences for press freedom and the public’s right to know,” he said in a statement. “It is vital that the actions of the police should be kept under scrutiny in a free society and this change in the law will make that much harder.”