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DWF LLP secures favourable judgment for South Yorkshire Police in a case in which the credibility of police force's employees had been challenged

18 July 2018
DWF's Police and Prison Law team have secured a favourable judgment for South Yorkshire Police ('SYP') in a claim brought by Sir Cliff Richard against the BBC and SYP for infringement of his privacy rights.

In 2014 a BBC reporter approached SYP with information he purported to have obtained from a confidential source within the Operation Yewtree team of the Metropolitan Police. The BBC had been informed that SYP were conducting an investigation into Sir Cliff Richard following allegations of historic sexual abuse against a minor. The BBC used this information to obtain SYP's co-operation in providing details of the search of Sir Cliff's home. The resulting news story was broadcast as an exclusive by the BBC and went on to receive world-wide coverage.

SYP apologised to Sir Cliff for breaching his privacy rights and a settlement was finalised in May 2017. The BBC refused to accept they had also breached Sir Cliff's right to privacy, and argued that in any event they had a right to freedom of expression. Sir Cliff's case against the BBC went to trial.

There was separately, a significant dispute between SYP and the BBC about the motivation behind SYP's co-operation with the BBC. SYP maintained they had been pressured into co-operating due to an implicit threat that the BBC would publish a story anyway, and their concern was to protect the investigation. The BBC denied any such pressure and said that the information was provided voluntarily.

Following a lengthy trial in April 2018, in which evidence was provided on behalf of Sir Cliff, the BBC and SYP, Mr Justice Mann has today (18 July) handed down his judgment.

On the key issue for SYP, Mann J concluded that SYP had not provided the details of the search wilfully or for any advantage or gain. Had the BBC not exploited this information, SYP's financial liability for the breach would have been assessed at £5,000 only. The BBC had been so focussed on their "world exclusive" that they gave little or no consideration to Sir Cliff's privacy rights, concerning themselves only with the accuracy of the story to prevent any future defamation claim. In short, "the BBC went in for an invasion of Sir Cliff's privacy in a big way" thereby magnifying the consequences of the initial disclosure by SYP.     

Mann J found that Sir Cliff had a legitimate expectation of a right to privacy with regard to the police investigation. He considered whether the BBC's right to freedom of expression outweighed the right to privacy and concluded it did not. Whilst there is a public interest in police investigations, this did not extend to disclosure of the name of the individual being investigated. The BBC had come into the information in a manner which they knew to be confidential and SYP were forced to corroborate this and work with the BBC for good operational reasons. The BBC should have known, and likely did know, that the consequences of the publication were capable of being immensely serious for Sir Cliff.

The BBC tried to "shuffle off the burden" of having committed a wrong, by claiming that their Article 10 rights compelled the court to order SYP to provide them with a 100% indemnity. Mann J was not minded to offer the BBC a "get out of jail free card", particularly because that same right they were relying on did not provide them with a defence to the initial breach. The BBC was the more potent causer of the harm and was ordered to pay 65% of the damages for which they and SYP were jointly responsible. 

Sir Cliff was awarded £190,000 in basic general damages for the significant degree of damage to his reputation and the 'profound' effect on him personally. Importantly this is the first time an award for damage to reputation has been made in a privacy claim.  

He was also awarded £20,000 in aggravated damages payable solely by the BBC. They had promoted their own infringing activities by submitting the broadcast for a Royal Television Society "Scoop of the Year" award.

Special damages are also to be awarded but will be quantified at a further trial.

SYP's settlement of £400,000 is now irrelevant. They are expected to pay only 35% of the general damages award (£64,750) plus the £5,000 for which they were found to be solely liable. Any difference in the calculation will be recovered from the BBC once special damages have been quantified.

This is a welcome judgment for SYP, who had accepted their failings in the investigation but whose honesty and integrity were at the heart of its dispute with the BBC. It is particularly pleasing that although the BBC had made allegations that SYP officers and employees conspired in the preparation of their notes of meetings after the event to protect their position, Mann J refused to accept those allegations and commented on the credibility and honesty of the SYP witnesses.

SYP have released the following statement:

Chief Constable Stephen Watson said: “I note Mr Justice Mann’s detailed and comprehensive judgment handed down today, Wednesday 18 July 2018. I fully accept his findings.

“I particularly welcome Mr Justice Mann’s findings that all South Yorkshire Police officers and staff were found to have acted entirely honestly and were credible and reliable witnesses.

“At a very early stage of these proceedings, we accepted and apologised to Sir Cliff Richard for the mistakes we made in our attempts to protect the integrity of the police investigation and the rights of the complainant, balanced against Sir Cliff Richard’s privacy rights.

 “I would like to take this opportunity to again offer our sincere apologies for the distress Sir Cliff Richard has suffered.”

You can read the judgment and summary here: Courts and Tribunals Judiciary | Sir Cliff Richard OBE -v- BBC

Further Reading