The BBC must appeal a High Court ruling effectively granting anonymity to people under police investigation or allow a dangerous new precedent to curtail press freedom and, by extension, the public’s right to know.
In his judgment handed down earlier this month, Mr Justice Mann decreed that in reporting an allegation of historical sex assault made against Sir Cliff Richard the BBC breached the 77-year-old singer’s privacy.
If left to stand this ruling will not simply chill press freedom in the UK but create a new ice age, where massive police raids involving public figures must be conducted under a cloak of secrecy.
Not two weeks since the judgement on 18 July, two newspapers – the Sun and the Mail on Sunday – have had legal letters citing the case in an attempt to gag reports about a union official facing an internal investigation.
The BBC has been denied the right to appeal through the High Court, but now it owes it to the wider news media to pursue the matter with the Court of Appeal and, if necessary, the European Court of Human Rights.
What happened to Sir Cliff cannot have been easy and certainly the BBC’s decision to film a police raid on his Berkshire home on August 2014 using footage from a helicopter, zooming in salaciously, is questionable.
The report was, said the judge, “somewhat sensationalist”, but the substance of what it was based on truthful reporting of the facts at the time.
Sir Cliff was never charged, or even arrested, as a result of the allegation against him and the case was later dropped – facts repeatedly made clear in BBC and other news coverage of the case.
He has been absolved entirely. It was the press too that reported this fact.
The fear is that if this judgment is allowed to stand we will face a future where police are allowed to act largely in secret and where the press are not allowed to report on arrests and a wide range of other activity.
Surely when public bodies are carrying out activities in public, the truth must be an absolute defence.