Angela Tilby: Sir Cliff was failed by the BBC

27 July 2018

PA

Sir Cliff Richard arrives at the High Court of Justice in London to hear the Judge’s ruling, last week

Sir Cliff Richard arrives at the High Court of Justice in London to hear the Judge’s ruling, last week

I HAVE a very clear memory of watching the BBC coverage of the police raid on Sir Cliff Richard’s Sunningdale home in the summer of 2014, with its hovering helicopter and view of the police clearly searching the singer’s rooms (News, 22 August 2014). I remember feeling at the time that it was as though we were watching a police drugs raid, or the hunt for a bomb maker.

Now, a judge has ruled that the BBC was guilty of “breathless sensationalism” in infringing the singer’s right to privacy (News, 20 July). Understandably, the judgment raises issues of press freedom which may need further clarification. But I am still left wondering how the BBC team could have treated the story so inappropriately, and, not having any insight into their error, could have gone on to submit the coverage for a Royal Television Society Award. It suggested a degree of emotional illiteracy — not uncommon, in my experience, among enthusiastic media folk.

Or perhaps the target was just too attractive to resist. Sir Cliff has been a part of British life for 60 years, since his first hit single “Move It” brought him to public attention as the British Elvis Presley. His style softened over time, and he became an all-age entertainer. His Christian faith led to an involvement in Christian music, and he performed at Billy Graham rallies.

There has always been speculation about his personal life. Unmarried, he confessed to having been in love, for a time, with Olivia Newton-John, and he was close to the tennis professional Sue Barker. Unusually for a lifelong bachelor, Sir Cliff always preferred not to live alone. For years, he shared his home with his manager, Bill Latham, and his mother, and they were joined for a time by Mr Latham’s girlfriend. He has spoken warmly of his wide circle of friends, and of how much they mean to him.

Sir Cliff’s choice of lifestyle has Christian roots. He has chosen to be single while sharing his life with others in a kind of extended community. And now, we know that no evidence has been uncovered that he was ever involved in child sex abuse.

Of course, the media are used to alcoholism, drug-taking, and sexual promiscuity among pop stars and entertainers. This is rarely considered newsworthy. But an allegation against a Christian who exercises his freedom to live in a way compatible with his faith somehow justifies the whole drama of the intrusive helicopter and the thrill of the police raid. While it may have been right to report that Sir Cliff was being investigated, the BBC’s coverage was never true public-interest journalism. It was persecution.

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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