BBC in crisis over Richard raid: Police fury at TV chiefs who screened dramatic swoop

  • BBC showed footage of police officers raiding Cliff Richard’s home
  • South Yorkshire Police have sent letter of complaint to Director-General
  • Sir Cliff has already voiced anger that BBC knew of raid before he did

The BBC was plunged into a new crisis last night after it was publicly blasted by police over its role in the shock Sir Cliff Richard sex abuse investigation.

In an extraordinary attack on the broadcaster’s standards, furious South Yorkshire Police accused the Corporation of breaking its own guidelines.

The force took the highly unusual step of announcing it had written an official letter of complaint to Director-General Lord Tony Hall over the Corporation’s controversial coverage of the case.

The BBC caused a sensation with its coverage when the star’s Berkshire penthouse was searched for five hours last week.

The force revealed it had been contacted ‘weeks ago’ by a BBC reporter who had found out about their ongoing top-secret investigation into shock allegations that Sir Cliff had sexually assaulted a boy at a 1980s concert.

In an astonishing statement published late yesterday, police said they had been ‘reluctant’ to co-operate with the broadcaster but believed if they did not, the BBC would run the story anyway, potentially jeopardising the highly sensitive investigation.

South Yorkshire Police admitted striking an unprecedented deal whereby the BBC would be given exclusive information in advance of the raid – allowing them to show it live on TV – ‘in return for delaying publication’ of their story.

Sir Cliff himself had expressed anger that the BBC was tipped off about the search before he was.

The police also blasted the BBC for its ‘disappointing’ failure to make it clear the police had not been the original source of the story. And they called for an investigation into the source of the ‘original leak’ to the BBC, piling on the pressure.

South Yorkshire Police said: ‘A letter of complaint has been sent to the Director-General of the BBC, making it clear that the broadcaster appears to have contravened its editorial guidelines.’

Last night, Andrew Bridgen, Tory MP for North-West Leicestershire, said: ‘What the BBC has done amounts to blackmail.

‘I think there should be an external inquiry to find out what happened, not an internal BBC one. This is shocking behaviour by a publicly funded national broadcaster.’

Last night, the BBC insisted: ‘A BBC journalist approached South Yorkshire Police with information about the investigation.

‘The BBC agreed to follow normal journalistic practice and not to publish a story that might jeopardise a police inquiry.’

Sources said the publicly funded broadcaster had ‘very unusually’ agreed to the police’s request on Friday to make clear they had not been the source.

Senior figures last night said the televised police raid broke all the rules on contact between press and police.

Rank and file police officers are said to be angry that the BBC – which suffered a crisis over its failure to expose Jimmy Savile’s abuse – ‘bounced’ police into allowing cameras and even a helicopter to witness the search.

In other developments, it can be revealed that:

  • The South Yorkshire crime tsar launched a probe into the police’s deal with the BBC;
  • A BBC producer sent an email to staff instructing them to delete from their playlists any of the pop legend’s songs;
  • Sir Cliff, who was in Portugal when the police raid took place and was playing tennis with friends there last night, could fly back to be interviewed under caution as early as today;
  • More than 75 people have complained about the BBC’s coverage of the case;
  • A planned screening of Sir Cliff’s much-loved film Summer Holiday could be pulled from the Bank Holiday schedule by ITV.

One newspaper has learned that an edict went out to all staff at BBC Radio Solent telling them not to play any of Sir Cliff’s hit records. An email was sent by producer Steve Lanham, just after news of the search broke.

The message is believed to have stated that staff with Cliff Richard songs on their playlists should delete them to avoid embarrassment.

But last night critics said the BBC should not be worried about playing songs by a man who remains innocent until proven guilty.

John Whittingdale MP, chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said: ‘Cliff Richard has not been charged and he has not been found guilty of anything, so there must be a presumption of innocence.’

A spokesman for the BBC insisted there was no nationwide ban on Sir Cliff’s songs and added: ‘The member of staff has been reminded that the music policy has not changed.’

It can also be revealed that ITV is considering whether to go ahead with a scheduled screening of Sir Cliff’s film Summer Holiday, due to be shown on ITV3 on Sunday afternoon during the Bank Holiday weekend.

An insider said: ‘We will keep the situation under review and will make any schedule changes that we deem appropriate.’

The drama surrounding Sir Cliff began on Thursday lunchtime when the BBC broadcast exclusive reports that police were searching a penthouse apartment in Sunningdale, Berkshire, belonging to the star.

Camera crews were already in place to watch teams of officers in unmarked cars arriving at the premises, while a news helicopter flew overhead.

It then emerged that South Yorkshire Police were carrying out the raid as part of an investigation into allegations that Richard had sexually abused a young boy during a Billy Graham rally at a Sheffield stadium in June 1985.

Under pressure to explain the circumstances of the televised raid, the BBC denied it had been tipped off by the force.

Instead, the police revealed they had been working with the BBC on the investigation before the pop star’s empty home was searched on Thursday.

As of last night, the BBC had received 77 complaints from members of the public about its handling of the case. Of these, 46 said there had been too much coverage and the other 31 expressed concern about how the Corporation had known about the police raid in advance.

The elected crime tsar for South Yorkshire, who holds the Chief Constable to account, last night stepped into the growing row.

Shaun Wright, the Labour Police and Crime Commissioner, is said to be taking the situation ‘very seriously’. He summoned his office’s chief executive and lawyer yesterday to start drawing up a timeline of what happened, and will hold a meeting tomorrow to decide what action to take next.

A spokesman for Mr Wright said: ‘In light of the outcomes of the Leveson Inquiry, the Commissioner will be looking very carefully at the catalogue of events which took place in relation to this investigation and any necessary actions will be taken.’

He added: ‘Questions need to be answered as to the original source of the leak, which put the force in a difficult position when approached by the media.’

Meanwhile, officers within the force were said to be ‘very, very angry’ about the collaboration with the BBC.

A police source said last night: ‘South Yorkshire Police felt they were being pushed into going in to investigate at this early stage. They felt very pressurised into doing it.

‘It’s totally unacceptable to brief the media prior to an investigation without the condition that there will be no media coverage until the police have been to an address and secured it.

‘For the police to have turned up and found the BBC waiting there for them is unacceptable.’

The BBC declined to comment on the allegation that it pressurised the force.

Sir Cliff – who is said to be being supported during the crisis by his ‘Man Friday’ Father John McElynn – emerged from his Portugal villa early yesterday evening for a game of mixed doubles on his tennis court. Smiling broadly, the star wore a red baseball cap and a white top with the number 72 on.

‘He was clearly trying to get away from his troubles doing what he loves most,’ said a near neighbour.

Sir Cliff said in a statement on Thursday that he had been aware of ‘completely false’ allegations against him online for many months.