Sir Cliff Richard case could have ‘worrying consequences’ for the free press, legal experts warn

The Cliff Richard case could have profound implications for the way the media reports on police investigations, legal experts warned last night.

Yesterday’s judgement, spanning 120 pages, is also likely to affect how police raids are conducted and determine whether the public will have the right to know anything about an investigation until a suspect is charged.

Within hours of the ruling, the Prime Minister was asked in the Commons whether a ‘Cliff’s Law’ should be introduced. 

This would ban the media from naming a person before they are charged, except in exceptional circumstances.

Sir Cliff Richard outside court after winning case against the BBC. The case could have profound implications for the way the media reports on police investigations

Theresa May told MPs that she believed there were cases where naming the accused before they are charged ‘enables other victims to come forward and therefore strengthens the case against an individual’.

One media barrister warned, however, that the Press would now have to ‘walk on eggshells’ when reporting police investigations.

Another said those under investigation would be able to ‘cloak themselves in privacy’, adding that the judgement marked a ‘fundamental change and rebalancing the position of privacy for suspects’.

BBC chiefs didn’t say sorry

Bosses at the BBC have repeatedly failed to apologise for its live coverage of the raid at Sir Cliff’s home.

Director general Tony Hall and former director of news James Harding avoided any responsibility for the breach of privacy.

In July 2016, Lord Hall said ‘we’ve said we’re sorry for the stress he’s been caused over the last couple of years.’ 

Mr Harding was on holiday at the time of the police probe. 

The decision to run the story was made by Fran Unsworth – his deputy at the time – but the High Court said he failed to acknowledge inconsistencies made. 

It described him as ‘overly guarded’ when the content of parts of the BBC’s defence ‘were compared with his emails.’ 

High Court judge Mr Justice Mann said in his ruling that knowing Sir Cliff was under investigation ‘might be of interest to the gossip-mongers’ but was not in the public interest.

Last night lawyers warned that the conclusion would resonate far wider than simply a battle between the BBC and a singer with a multimillion pound fortune.

It could mean that journalists are no longer able to name a suspect until they have been formally named by the police – which often only happens once a person has been charged.

Ian Murray of the Society of Editors said: ‘Certainly, such a major change in the law should be debated in Parliament and not come into force following one case involving a high-profile celebrity.

‘In many situations the publishing of the name of someone under investigation has led to other witnesses and victims coming forward.

‘We should also consider that the reverse is true. 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.’

 The judgement could also play into the hands of the wealthy. 

Media barrister Sarah Palin said: ‘Ordinary people won’t think they would be entitled to privacy in an arrest. It will just be used by the wealthy famous and people who can afford large legal bills – they will use this to their advantage.’

Theresa May (pictured in the Commons today) was asked by MP Anna Soubry about introducing a 'Cliff's Law'

Theresa May (pictured in the Commons today) was asked by MP Anna Soubry about introducing a ‘Cliff’s Law’

 Mark Stephens, a media lawyer at Howard Kennedy, said: ‘People who are under investigation, having their homes raided and so on and so forth are now entitled to cloak themselves in privacy.

‘In the case of a teacher or a Scout leader who is suspected of inappropriate behaviour with children, are we really saying that that person is entitled to maintain their privacy and the secrecy of that allegation until the police have all the evidence they need to be able to charge them?

‘That just cannot be right. It is one step closer to secret arrests, secret investigations and secret search warrants. That way lies totalitarianism.’

Nicola Cain, of the law firm RPC, said of the judgement: ‘The media is going to have to walk on eggshells when reporting on police investigations from now on.’