The BBC, the press and the raid on Cliff Richard’s home

Posted by: Dr John Jewell

When police investigating allegations of historic sex abuse searched the Berkshire home of Cliff Richard last week, it was the BBC who broke the news. Indeed, the Independent reported that when the eight officers from South Yorkshire turned up on the singer’s doorstep the BBC had a journalist, camera man and press helicopter already in attendance. Richard, in Portugal at the time of the raid, proclaimed himself innocent of any allegations and complained that the police ‘attended my apartment in Berkshire today without notice, except it would appear to the press’.

The fact that the BBC broadcast the events live from the helicopter seemed to upset some people who instinctively expect more from the Corporation. There was talk of a ‘witch hunt’ against Sir Cliff and Michael Parkinson, one of the BBC’s most famous faces, compared its actions to the tabloid press saying that its behaviour, ‘would have done the red tops credit’

Some defended the actions of the BBC. Dominic Ponsford of the Press Gazette wrote that the Corporation deserved to be lauded for its ‘scoop’.  He pointed out that the BBC had often been criticised in the past for being too cautious in its approach to breaking news but now, in Ponsford’s opinion, it deserved praise for getting there first and for having the courage to run with it so forcefully, complete with helicopter.’

For the Mail newspapers, though, here was another opportunity to attack a reliable enemy. The Sunday Mail’s front page intoned CLIFF RAID: BBC IN CRISIS, while the editorial told us, “The enormous, unanswerable power of the BBC in modern Britain is comparable to that wielded by the trades unions 40 years ago. It is far too great and ought to be diminished.”

This rather neatly encapsulates the Mail’s historical attitude toward the corporation and we should be aware of the steady drip of anti-BBC reports which appear with startling regularity both in its newspapers and online. In the same week as the Richard raid, we heard how the licence fee is being wasted and how there was “Fury at bungling BBC” after “tributes” to Jimmy Savile – in fact an old article reporting his death that had crept back up the most-read rankings – appeared alongside website reports of Robin Williams’s.

We were also told that the Beeb has sentenced us to 100 years of boring lefty claptrap and how, according to actress June Whitfield, the BBC thinks “middle-class” has become a “dirty word”

As a public institution the BBC is an anathema to the Daily Mail. It stands for all in modern society that it disapproves of – it enjoys the benefits of a fixed tax system which allows it to fritter away huge awards of public money on minority interests and inflated staff salaries. Furthermore, the Mail believes, as Mrs Thatcher did, that at journalistic and management level, the Corporation is inhabited by individuals dedicated to left wing politics, multiculturalism and the dismantling of ‘traditional values’.

The sad fact in all this is that according to the BBC’s Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, ‘I think things are changing, but we have also been too worried about what other people think, particularly the Daily Mail. There are times we could have, instead of apologising, stood up for ourselves a bit more strongly.’ 

We should also remember that historically, the right wing press in the UK has consistently attempted to undermine the status of the BBC. It was the Murdoch owned press, (The TimesSunday TimesSun, the now defunct News of the World) that allied itself to the Thatcher government in the 1980’s. Murdoch then had, and of course still does, a commercial interest in a change in the broadcasting system. Thatcher opposed the BBC ideologically, while Murdoch was interested in a solely commercially funded media. Thus, in order to attain a major footing in British broadcasting, Murdoch needed to attempt to weaken public service broadcasting. Every opportunity to criticise the BBC was seized upon – with Murdoch using his substantial media concerns in this country to support the Prime Minister, while his companies received direct benefits as a consequence of policy decisions taken by her government.

The 1980’s clearly saw the BBC emerge as a business rival of News international. At a time when both parties were involved in the development of satellite technology Thatcher refused to support the BBC, whilst creating an environment conducive to the expansion of the Murdoch empire.

To this day, Murdoch clearly believes the BBC to be a hotbed of ‘lefties’. In October 2013, whist the future of press regulation was being discussed in Parliament he tweeted that there was a huge lack of balance in UK media with 8,000 BBC leftwing journalists far outnumbering all national print journalists, and that the BBC was a  massive taxpayer funded mouthpiece for tiny circulation leftist Guardian.’

The irony of this of course is that the BBC is anything but left wing. As analysis of the BBC’s news coverage from 2007 and 2012 by my colleagues at Cardiff University concluded:  the evidence from the research is clear. The BBC tends to reproduce a Conservative, Eurosceptic, pro-business version of the world, not a left-wing, anti-business agenda. ‘

In her excellent recent series on the BBC, Charlotte Higgins asked a ‘senior journalist’ whether the BBC had moved to the right. She was told, “Undoubtedly. You’re not supposed to read the Guardian at the BBC, because it confirms everyone’s prejudices. For years it has been more important at the BBC to be seen reading the Telegraph or the Times.”

Higgins’ series of articles for the Guardian  highlights how the BBC’s twin concepts of independence and impartiality have been tested throughout its history. The many interviews with journalists, editors and management past and present give great insight into how working practices at the BBC have been affected by government and press scrutiny.

In my view the BBC was right to act upon the information it received and Dan Johnson, the journalist who received the tip off appears to have acted properly in his dealings with the police.  That said, one cannot help but agree with those who argue that, with the use of the helicopter, the BBC left itself wide open to the charges of tabloidisation and sensationalism that have come its way.

BUT whatever our opinion on how the BBC behaved in its coverage of the raid on Cliff Richard’s home we should remember that criticism of the Corporation by sections of the press is both routine and inevitable. That is not to say that the BBC is not without fault in very many cases – we can point to the Savile/Newsnight affair for recent instances of miscommunication and mismanagement – but it is a unique institution with a variety of complex constraints governing the way it is run.