Cliff Richard privacy ruling has left press in legal limbo – Lord Hall

The singer recently won a privacy case against the corporation over coverage of a police raid.

Sir Cliff Richard’s victory in a privacy case against the BBC over its coverage of a police raid on his home has left the media in “legal limbo” over the conflict between freedom of speech and individual privacy, the corporation’s director-general has said.

The singer sued over BBC coverage of a South Yorkshire Police raid on his home in Sunningdale, Berkshire, in August 2014, following an allegation of child sexual assault which he denied. He was never charged.

In July Mr Justice Mann ruled in Sir Cliff’s favour following a trial in London, concluding the coverage was a very serious privacy invasion and awarded the singer £210,000 damages.

Delivering the inaugural Satchwell Lecture to the Society of Editors, Lord Tony Hall said politicians must now clarify the law for instances where there is a conflict between freedom of speech and individual privacy.”

Lord Tony Hall
Lord Tony Hall giving the inaugural Satchwell Lecture to the Society Of Editors (Pete Clifton/PA)

Stressing that the BBC’s new charter now requires the broadcaster to exercise and champion freedom of expression, he said: “I welcome the way the Human Rights Act afforded us all a statutory protection in leading our family lives in private. The BBC respects the proper privacy of individuals.

“But I value too our rights as citizens to accurate information about what’s going on in the world around us.”

He added: “The judge was critical of aspects of the BBC’s coverage – and so, by the way, was I – but he went out of his way to rule, in terms, that even if the story had simply been read straight to camera by a newsreader, the very reporting of the raid would have been in breach.

“Now, whether you think there was a strong public interest in knowing that that particular personality was under police investigation is a legitimate matter of debate.

“But, following that judgment, our legal advice was crystal clear: the judge seemed to have erred in law in saying that any report naming him would have been wrong.

“But the particular circumstances of the BBC’s report – the helicopter and all that – made it entirely possible that we would have lost any appeal and, if we did, it risked enshrining the verdict and giving it the full force of precedent. I believe that other media organisations were given similar advice.

Media outside the Sunningdale, Berkshire, home of Sir Cliff during the raid in 2014
Media outside the Sunningdale, Berkshire, home of Sir Cliff during the raid in 2014 (PA)

“In fact, over the last few years the law has been moving towards protecting privacy rights – and this case took it one step further. So today we – broadcasters and press alike – are in a legal limbo.”

If we report police raids and identify the suspect in advance of any arrest or charge, we may be found in breach of the evolving laws of privacy. I can see no reason to believe that parliament ever intended that, but if it did it should say so.

“So now we need government and parliament to clarify the law and tell the public clearly what they are and what they are not allowed to be told when there is a conflict between freedom of speech and individual privacy.”

He later added: “It’s a matter for all of us. The notion of privacy is important but you don’t want to be living in a country where raids take place and nobody knows.”

Lord Hall said the BBC is planning a seminar in the next few months with both journalists and politicians to work on discussing the issue.

He said: “I’m not going to let it go, I want to motor on this.”

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