Sir Cliff Richard has been awarded damages of £210,000 after the High Court ruled on 18 July 2018 that the BBC’s coverage of a police investigation into alleged sexual offences involving a minor was a breach of Sir Cliff’s privacy.

Background

In 2014, the South Yorkshire Police (“SYP”) investigated historic child sexual assault allegations against Sir Cliff and carried out a search of Sir Cliff’s home. The SYP disclosed to the BBC the facts of the investigation and the date of the intended search. On the day in question, the BBC attended Sir Cliff’s home to film the search and broadcast it on television and online. The BBC News Channel repeated the story every quarter of an hour during the day. Sir Cliff had not been charged with any crime and the investigation was subsequently dropped.

The Claim

Sir Cliff sued the SYP and the BBC for breach of his right to respect for his private life under Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights (“ECHR”). Article 8 ECHR is engaged where an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy. The SYP admitted liability before the trial and agreed to pay Sir Cliff substantial damages of £400,000 plus costs. The BBC argued that it was justified to report the investigation because of its Article 10 ECHR rights of freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The BBC also highlighted its duty to report matters of public interest and the public’s right to receive such information.

Invasion of Privacy and Damages

In a judgment which is likely to have profound consequences on how the press reports police investigations going forward, the judge ruled that:

  1. As a police suspect, Sir Cliff had a reasonable expectation of privacy under Article 8 in relation to the police investigation, including the search warrant and the search itself, as against the SYP and as against the BBC.
  2. The SYP had infringed Sir Cliff’s Article 8 rights by disclosing information about the police investigation to the BBC.
  3. The BBC had infringed Sir Cliff’s Article 8 rights by publicising information about the police investigation, the granting of a search warrant and the search of Sir Cliff’s home.
  4. Sir Cliff’s Article 8 rights outweighed the BBC’s Article 10 rights for reasons including:-
    • Sir Cliff’s reasonable expectation of privacy was not diminished by the fact that he is in the public eye.
    • A police investigation into child sexual abuse allegations against an unidentified celebrity was a matter of public interest, but the identity of the suspect was not.
    • Whilst the information published by the BBC was accurate, the BBC’s method of obtaining the information was unethical because they “relied on a form of threat” to SYP to obtain further details of “obviously private and sensitive information”.
    • Sir Cliff was not given a fair opportunity to reply to the BBC’s intended broadcast before it happened.
    • The BBC “added drama and a degree of sensationalism” to its coverage which materially increased the impact of the intrusion into Sir Cliff’s privacy.
  5. Sir Cliff be awarded basic damages of £190,000 because of the profound effect of the BBC’s broadcast, which was widely disseminated by the press, on Sir Cliff’s dignity, status and reputation, particularly during the 2-year period between the BBC’s broadcast and the police’s decision not to charge him.
  6. Sir Cliff be awarded aggravated damages of £20,000 because of the additional distress caused by the BBC submitting the broadcast for a Royal Television Society award in the category “Scoop of the Year” and then refusing to withdraw it when asked to do so by Sir Cliff’s solicitors.

Comment

This case will no doubt be a source of comfort to individuals in the public eye as the case sends out a strong message to the press that, in the words of the judge, “Public figures are not fair game for any invasion of privacy”.

Interestingly, the judge stated that:-

“Sir Cliff’s oft-stated and well-known position as a Christian, promoted by him, might make disclosures of actual conduct which might be regarded as unchristian something to which he has rendered himself vulnerable by virtue of his public position. However that does not mean that unsubstantiated allegations, or investigations, into unproved conduct fall into the same category”.

Whilst the judge acknowledged that “The press often performs a valuable function in disclosing information which others might wish to remain private”, the judge was clear that in this case the BBC had overstepped the mark due to the “excitement of its scoop”.

Final thoughts

Some may experience “fun and laughter on our summer holiday” when reflecting on the fact that, despite the BBC’s breach of Sir Cliff’s privacy, the BBC did not even win the Scoop of the Year award. That said, this may only last “For a week or two” because the BBC has indicated it may appeal the judgment. Not to leave things on a Cliff hanger…