Police, Sir Cliff, and trial by media

The Cliff Richard case, in which media were obviously tipped off before Cliff was, shows how little has been learned. The criminal justice system is not a play thing of the media or the police. Both need to understand that

Cliff Richard
Steven George-Hilley
On 18 August 2014 06:37

The revelations that BBC reporters were ready and waiting at Sir Cliff Richard’s home before the Police arrived to search it, is another reminder of the controversial role the media has played in a string of highly complex investigations including Operation Yewtree over the last few months.

Whilst I seek to make no comment on either the allegations or to speculate further as to the credibility of the claims, the televised raid raises further questions around how media sensationalism fuelled by leaks can blur the lines around the natural course of justice and in some cases damage the credibility of serious police investigations.

The recent string of high profile trials of celebrities around historic sex allegations have seen a mixed bag of outcomes. We should bear in mind that whilst there are those who clearly deserved to be investigated, found guilty and jailed, there are several totally innocent people who have seen their reputations trashed despite being found totally innocent of the allegations.

In each and every case, the defendants have been subjected to lurid headlines with their private lives picked apart, a process which is totally fair once found guilty, but completely obscene when they are innocent.

I am not seeking to undermine the relationship between the police and the media. This partnership is undoubtedly critical in raising awareness of important issues and bringing guilty parties to justice. But there is legitimate cause for concern when it appears that the media were provided with information about a police raid before the individual in question was informed.

Such practice, whilst indeed raising the profile of the appeal for information, breaches protocol and could sensationalise a legitimate investigation. It was clear that such a search of a very high profile singer would have been noted and covered by the media anyway, so why the need to give the BBC an exclusive tip off? Police investigations must remain confidential at all times, to protect the credibility of the investigation.

One person all too familiar with the trial by media is Nigel Evans MP, who was found innocent of a string of totally false allegations earlier this year. Upon first being questioned about the allegations, he found himself splashed across the newspapers, with lurid speculation and innuendo from most of the major national papers.

After a prosecution case that clearly should never have even gone to court, the end result was an innocent verdict. But after many months of agonising stress, smears and a bill for defending himself costing him his entire life savings, this is small comfort for an innocent man.

In a public statement about the Cliff Richard case he said, ““Questions have got to be answered,” and most of the public probably agree with him.

The police have a duty to the public and to the country to uphold the very highest standards of operational integrity around investigations as serious as this. Whilst I make no criticism of the need for good relations between officers and the national media for raising awareness of high profile crimes, leaks such as this chip away at public confidence.

Regardless of how the Cliff Richard investigation progresses, the police should have learned by now that leaks of this nature are not the answer.

Instead, it would have been much more professional to conduct the search and release a statement to the media appealing for witnesses to come forward. Until the police get their act together and learn to respect the confidentiality of sensitive investigations, their credibility will continue to remain in question.

Without this credibility, it will become increasingly difficult to bring the guilty to justice.

Steven George-Hilley is a director at the Parliament Street think tank and a Conservative Party activist. He is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator

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