Even an organisation as well-resourced as the BBC doesn’t keep helicopters whirring away on standby – poised to dash its journalists to wherever a story may take them. Booking a “chopper”, arranging where it will go and when, confirming how long it will need to be in the air for – all this needs intricate planning. It is therefore hard to see how anyone other than South Yorkshire Police could have tipped off BBC journalists about the place and timing of their search of Sir Cliff Richard’s home on Thursday – since others will have known about the warrant but not the timing. That the BBC was able to unleash a barrage of reports across its networks on TV, radio, the net and social media also strongly suggests a carefully planned joint operation.
None the less, let us for a moment presume that South Yorkshire police did not tip the BBC off, and turn to their statement. They say that when contacted by BBC journalists with information about an investigation, they decided to “work with them in order to protect the integrity” of the probe – adding that “since the search took place a number of people have contacted the police to provide information and we must acknowledge that the media played a part in that, for which we are grateful”.
In other words (and plainer English): “Well, now. You complain that the media was tipped off about the search. But it’s great that they were! You see, people saw all that coverage and some contacted us afterwards. With information. Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Know what I mean.”
Is this a new police operational procedure in South Yorkshire? That the police uses the BBC to help publicise searches? If so, will other media be treated in the same way? Will South Yorkshire police now go further, and take adverts out in the paper and on the net, promoting any search that they happen to be carrying out? And if not, why not – since such searches can have the happy consequence of people coming forward with information?
The search of Sir Cliff’s home is not part of Operation Yewtree (though the allegation against him is a claim of sex assault involving a boy under the age of 16 in 1985). But the story of Yewtree so far is worth bearing in mind. It has had its successes in court: Rolf Harris, Max Clifford, Stuart Hall. But it has had its failures, too: Dave Lee Travis was found not guilty (though he awaits a retrial on two charges on which a verdict could not be agreed), and a string of celebrities has not been charged – Jimmy Tarbuck, Freddie Starr, Jim Davidson. They will never fully recover from the reputational damage inflicted on them – a point made in his own case by the late, great Alistair McAlpine over his outrageous treatment by Sally Bercow.
In other words, it should be a foundation of police operations that reputations are not unfairly ruined, that searches are proportionate (there is no reason to believe a warrant was required in Sir Cliff’s case at all), and that the principle that a man is innocent until or unless he is proved guilty is respected. Child abuse is a terrible evil. The unproven accusation that Sir Cliff was involved in it – and at a Billy Graham rally, of all places – could scarcely be more damaging to him. The police say that they worked with the BBC in order to “protect the integrity” of their probe into the case. But there is a stinging irony in this otherwise meaningless phrase – since the manner in which the search was carried out has weakened that integrity, not strengthened it.
The police’s justification of the handling of the search is scandalous. There seems to have been no case for a warrant at all. South Yorkshire’s Police Commissioner should investigate. And Keith Vaz and John Whittingdale should call in the Chief Constable before their Select Committees as soon as the Commons returns.