Not only was his house searched while he was known to be out of the country, but the search was conducted under the merciless glare of the nation's media. It seems that the media were alerted prior to the event, though precisely by whom remains unclear. So without warning the poor man is catapulted into headlines that are always hungry to see a celebrity toppled. And this when he has not even been cautioned or interviewed let alone arrested and charged with any offence. He has not been given the chance to offer any defence or explanation in respect of whatever suspicions are held. It is scarcely believable that such a thing could happen so publicly in 21st century Britain.
Yesterday, my wife alerted me to a Facebook feed about the breaking news. Someone, commenting on the story, announced triumphantly 'I knew it!' You can sense the tone of satisfaction: suspicion confirmed, the worst believed, a reputation sunk. I doubt that a single FB post will inflict much more damage than has already been caused. It's just an indication of how quickly people jump to conclusions and pronounce sentence, a universal human trait to be sure, but magnified hugely by the sheer power and influence of social media.
By coincidence, the story broke on the day I finished reading a novel about the Dreyfus affair. I blogged about it yesterday, so I won't repeat myself. Briefly, what did for the alleged traitor (among other things) was the way in which public opinion was manipulated by a hostile press egged on by people in power who were already shaping the outcome. Dreyfus was perhaps the first person to undergo trial by media in its modern sense. It turned out that he was innocent. But it very nearly meant the end of him.
Like everyone else, I know nothing about the facts in Cliff Richard's case. My protest is not against the propriety of the police acting on a serious allegation and searching a householder's premises when there are sufficient grounds and it is lawfully authorised. I've no reason to think that due process has not been followed here. But I can't believe that it could ever be right to proclaim it to the media as seems to have happened, and thereby feed a prurient public. It is Cliff Richard's right to be treated like any other British citizen when suspicion is raised: innocent until proved guilty. There are no exceptions to this principle that is so fundamental to our legal system. Celebrities have rights too.
It will take many months, perhaps more than a year, to assess the evidence, pursue other relevant enquiries and come to a conclusion about whether charges should be brought. During this time, Cliff Richard will be in limbo, not knowing what will await him, but under intense public scrutiny and already as good as criminalised by some sections of public opinion. Who knows what that will put him through? It is rough justice to treat a human being with such disregard for his rights, his welfare and his privacy.
Now South Yorkshire Police are blaming the BBC for this sorry chain of events. Someone has to take responsibility. Who is going to hold their hands up, admit that a terrible mistake has been made and say sorry? It will be too late to undo the mischief they have caused, but it might just help recover our belief that the noble legacy of Magna Carta is not entirely lost.
Geoffrey Robertson QC has stated the issues clearly in an excellent piece in the Independent. You can read it at http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-way-the-police-have-treated-cliff-richard-is-completely-unacceptable-9672367.html.