BBC says Cliff Richard raid coverage was 'squarely in public interest' and it will 'vigorously' defend privacy claim

BBC editors say they will “defend ourselves vigorously” after being sued by Sir Cliff Richard over reports naming him as a suspected sex offender.

They say it is the BBC’s “responsibility” to report stories that are in the public interest – and they say police investigations into prominent public figures are “squarely” in the public interest.

Bosses on Wednesday spelled out their stance after lawyers lodged a defence to the 76-year-old singer’s damages claims at the High Court in London.

Sir Cliff has taken legal action against the BBC and South Yorkshire Police in the wake of coverage of a raid at his apartment in Sunningdale, Berkshire, in August 2014.

Lawyers representing Sir Cliff say he suffered ”profound and long-lasting” damage.

They say he has sold the apartment which was raided because the prospect of living somewhere which had been ”so publicly violated” distressed him.

They say the furore threw his ”creative and business plans” into disarray – and forced him to delay the release of an album of “rock ‘n’ roll classics”.

And they say he has run up more than £1 million in lawyers’ bills.

Detail of Sir Cliff’s complaints had emerged in October in paperwork lodged by his lawyers at the High Court.

But a BBC spokesman said bosses would defend coverage.

“As we have said on several occasions, we are very sorry that Sir Cliff Richard has suffered distress,” she said.

“However, we have now submitted our response to this claim and will defend ourselves vigorously.”

She added: “It is the BBC’s responsibility to report fully stories that are in the public interest. Police investigations into prominent figures in public life are, of course, squarely in the public interest.”

The spokeswoman said “at every stage” the BBC had reported Sir Cliff’s “full denial of the allegations”.

Lawyers say in late 2013 a man had made an allegation to the Metropolitan Police – saying he had been sexually assaulted by Sir Cliff at a public event at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane football stadium, in Sheffield, when a child in 1985.

Metropolitan Police officers had passed the allegation to South Yorkshire Police in July 2014.

Sir Cliff had denied the allegation ”as soon as it was brought to his attention” – and in June 2016 prosecutors announced that he would face no charges.

The singer says his privacy was invaded and wants ”very substantial” damages.

His lawyers say the BBC broadcast was presented as a ”major story” on the day of the raid after making an agreement with South Yorkshire Police.

They say South Yorkshire Police contravened guidance on ”relationships with the media”.

Barrister Gavin Millar QC outlined the BBC’s defence in a 27-page document prepared for court hearings.

Millar, who heads the BBC’s legal team, disputed claims about the use of “private information”.

“There is a strong public interest in the reporting of criminal investigations into prominent figures such as the claimant,” he said.

“Publicising such investigations ensures scrutiny of the police; it ensures that justice is seen to be done; and it ensures that people, regardless of wealth and influence, are seen to be equal before the law.

“There is a particularly strong public interest where such investigations concern allegations of historic sexual abuse.”

He denied that BBC coverage had been “sensational or highly intrusive”.

And he denied that a helicopter “was already hovering” when police arrived.

A spokesman for Sir Cliff said on Wednesday: “Sir Cliff’s lawyers have made him aware of the fact that the BBC has filed a defence to the claim on the date expected.”

He added: “Sir Cliff looks forward to the point at which a judge can make a decision based on the evidence he or she will be presented with in court.”

In June, South Yorkshire Police apologised ”wholeheartedly for the additional anxiety caused” to Sir Cliff by the force’s ”initial handling of the media interest” in its investigation into the singer.

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