Publishers Voice Fears For Press Freedom After BBC Drops Cliff Richard Appeal

Publishers have voiced fears for press freedom and the principles of open justice after the BBC announced yesterday that it would not be appealing the judgment in the Sir Cliff Richard case. 

Responding to the announcement, the News Media Association said: “This case has raised wide issues around the reporting of the criminal justice process which local and national news media do on behalf of the public.

“Given the broader consequences for press freedom, we are surprised that the BBC has decided not to appeal this decision. The NMA will now seek urgent meetings with the Government with the aim of ensuring that freedom of speech is not curtailed as a result of this judgment.

“Public confidence in the criminal justice system is underpinned by transparency at every stage of the process and anything which damages or limits this openness must be resisted.”

In a leader this morning, The Sun said: “The judgment gives all suspects a right to anonymity until they are charged, allowing early-stage investigations by the police to take place without any oversight at all.

“It is not paranoia to say that it opens up the possibility for the very principles of open justice to be thrown out of the window. Although Cliff was not arrested, lawyers will now expect anonymity for clients who are. Yet some cases only proceed because publicity brings forward more victims.

“Stuart Hall is a famous example. Naming him established a pattern of behaviour without which he would not have been jailed. We recognise how distressing it must have been for Cliff Richard to be the subject of this investigation.

“But we cannot confuse his case with the precedent it has set for the media more generally, which has already seen us receiving legal letters referencing this case as an argument that we should not publish.”

The Daily Express said in a leader: “It does look in this case as if the corporation’s judgment was severely flawed. But disastrous and wrongheaded actions by the BBC should not be used as the basis of an assault on press freedom, which is essential to the running of a democracy. After all, the only people who really have anything to fear from a free press are those with something to hide.”

Writing in the i, editor Oliver Duff said: “Mr Justice Mann’s ruling ushers in a dangerous change to the law – and it needs to be challenged. It tips the delicate balance between an open society and privacy too far the towards secrecy.

“Publicising a police investigation can create a domino effect, encouraging other witnesses to come forward. This happened with Stuart Hall: 10 women gave evidence, leading, at last, to his conviction.

“It also happened with bishop Peter Ball, who hid in plain sight boasting the friendship of Prince Charles, before eventually being convicted of abusing 18 young men. We also see it now with Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo moment.

“Abuse thrives in secrecy. There is a broader point, too: as a society, do we want secret arrests, secret investigations, secret search warrants? Mr Justice Mann’s bungled ruling is already having a deadening effect on reporting around the country.

“Journalists, police and lawyers no longer know what can be released to the public. This is great news for criminals and for those rich and powerful who do have something to hide. They will abuse this ruling to stop public scrutiny of their behaviour.”

Society of Editors executive director Ian Murray said: “These are serious issues and should not be decided by the verdict in one celebrity court case, no matter how high profile. Parliament should now urgently consider whether such a step towards individual privacy against the protection of society’s overall liberties is acceptable. At risk is whether the balance between such issues which underpin individual rights and freedom of expression in our liberal democracy has now been altered to the detriment of us all.

“The Society recognises that the sympathies of the public may well be strongly with Sir Cliff on this issue and in this particular case, but there are bigger issues at stake that, if unchallenged, will affect the liberties of all citizens.”