A BBC reporter has denied “strong-arming” South Yorkshire Police into disclosing details of the raid on Sir Cliff Richard’s home, and said he believed the story was in the public interest.
Journalist Dan Johnson today told the High Court he did not make any deal at a meeting with Det Supt Matthew Fenwick and Carrie Goodwin, the force’s head of corporate communications, in July 2014 when they discussed the investigation into Sir Cliff.
The court was told earlier this week that Johnson made an “arrangement” with the police force not to report what he knew about the investigation until the raid took place.
But Johnson told the court: “It wasn’t a deal in a formal sense, I think it was just an acceptance at the end of that meeting that if I kept quiet, more information would be forthcoming about the search – date, time, location.”
Johnson denied a suggestion he was “strong-arming” the police into disclosing details and said he was simply making a “light-hearted” remark when he wrote in an email that he had them “over a barrel”.
He said: “That would have been blackmail or something, wouldn’t it? That would have been a criminal offence, given that I was already in a police station that could have been dealt with in a number of ways.
“I didn’t need to hold anyone over a barrel, I don’t work like that anyway.”
The 77-year-old singer is suing the BBC over its coverage of the search, which was carried out after a historical sex assault allegation, and is seeking damages at the “top end” of the scale.
This BBC disputes this and says its reporting was accurate and in good faith.
Johnson said he had not revealed the identity of his confidential source to others, saying: “It is just a fundamental principle of journalism that you do not disclose or discuss sources with anyone – not even colleagues.”
He added: “They weren’t that interested in where it had come from. That’s why Matt Fenwick didn’t approach Yewtree until the whole thing blew up in his face.”
Johnson denied telling Det Supt Fenwick and Goodwin that he was ready to run the story about police investigating Sir Cliff unless they co-operated with him.
Justin Rushbrooke QC, for Sir Cliff, said: “You made it clear that you were ready to publish your story, they made it clear they weren’t ready to search on the basis of what you had convinced them that you knew and your intention to go public, they agreed to co-operate with you on the date and location of the search.”
Johnson replied: “That is not what happened. They gave me the details of the investigation which I wrote down my notes during the meeting.
“They told me the detail of the allegation, who had made it and what the nature of it was, the circumstances.”
Johnson told the court he believed the story about the search of Sir Cliff’s home was in the public interest and that he thought his belief was “reasonable”.
He said: “This was a story involving allegations of a very serious nature against a figure of the highest profile, against the backdrop of a number of allegations being made against other celebrities – some of whom had been jailed.”
He added that some of those other celebrities had been jailed after victims came forward following publicity about their arrest and charge.
He said: “I felt this was a story I could not ignore and my responsibility was to check the facts as best as I could and then hand the story on to my editors.”
Rushbrooke said: “You were the hero of the day, not just in the local office, but in the national office. You were the toast of the UK newsroom.”
Johnson replied: “Editors seemed to be pleased that I had brought in the story.”
Fran Unsworth, who earlier this year became the BBC’s director of news and current affairs, but was deputy director at the time, sent a message to Johnson following coverage of the police search, the High Court heard.
“It was an excellent piece of work,” she said in a message read out by Rushbrooke. “It was a very good piece of journalism.”
Johnson was asked what he meant in an internal BBC email when he made remarks about a clip of Evangelist preacher Billy Graham’s rally at Bramall Lane in the 1980s, where the alleged sex assault was said to have happened.
Rushbrooke said the phrases “it wasn’t just the hand of God doing the touching” and “guilty in my book” were an indication of the reporter’s “mindset” about the story.
The barrister said Johnson was treating the singer “as a guilty man”.
But Johnson repeatedly denied he was referring to Sir Cliff in the email, and said the comments were about Graham.
He described the “hand of God” reference as a “bad taste joke”, adding: “These are light-hearted remarks made to a close colleague, it doesn’t mean anything.
“It doesn’t affect the way I reported this story later on.”
It was revealed in the course of the High Court trial last week that South Yorkshire Police has agreed to pay Sir Cliff £400,000 and pick up some of his legal fees. The force wants the BBC to contribute to this sum.
Picture: Kirsty O’Connor/PA Wire