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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

J'Accuse!... Cliff Richard: Ordeal by Media

The way Cliff Richard has been treated is shocking. At least, it has shocked me. 

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


  1. Well said and well put. I was appalled by the BBC coverage including cameras peering through his windows. Shocking and unjustifiable.

  2. This sort of thing is becoming a witch hunt and I simply cannot understand what the police are doing now. We always used to say that you were innocent until proved guilty, but now this has changed. Does this throw up problems for Bishops etc and the laying on of hands, as this could be used against them in the future. It's all gone so very very sad. All christains have hugged others in the past, now as a person with dementia I am nervous of just looking at people let alone touching them .

  3. This seems very much like a fishing expedition. An alleged offence happening over 20 years before, miles away from his southern home, where evidence is obviously one persons word against another needs something more to support it. So, why not do a search to find if there's anything else that could be damaging against the alleged suspect and might be used to support a weak case by destroying the character of the accused.

    This seems to have become the norm for any police investigation. Someone alleges a crime and the whole force of the law is deployed to disrupt the life of the accused to 'preserve evidence' or some other dubious reason, which requires whole sale searches with a warrant of every conceivable aspects of the accused's life.

    This is blanket policing, not detection, investigation, evidence gathering and prosecution. It's the easy way out for an already disgraced police force, South Yorkshire police are already contaminated by the Hillsborough business - they're trying to recover some kudos, using doubtful means. The investigation should be taken away from them and run independently by another force appointed by the IPCC.