Former Home Secretary David Blunkett has leapt to the defence of South Yorkshire’s embattled chief constable in the row over how the search of Cliff Richard’s apartment came to be broadcast live by the BBC.
South Yorkshire Police has come under fire after admitting it “co-operated” with a reporter from the Corporation who had been tipped off about the investigation into allegations Sir Cliff sexually assaulted a boy in Sheffield in the 1980s.
The controversy over the live coverage of a police search of the singer’s house has led to South Yorkshire Police’s Chief Constable David Crompton and the BBC’s Director-General, Tony Hall, being called to face a grilling by MPs.
Mr Blunkett, a Sheffield MP until next year and the Home Secretary between 2001 and 2004, said the police’s “communication strategy” about the search of the singer’s house, which was filmed live by the BBC, was “surrounded by confusion”.
But he added: “I am very sympathetic to the South Yorkshire Chief Constable’s disquiet given that their cooperation was on the basis of avoiding publicity prior to action taken, and the suggested failure of the BBC to live up to apparent commitments made.
“However, given the claim and counter-claim, it would be sensible for total clarification and openness, including whether Cliff Richard or his representatives were notified at the time of the raid on his property (understandably if material were to be secured prior notification would have been difficult).
“It is important that the rights of the individual or individuals involved should be secured, not least because we still believe people are innocent until proved guilty in this country and smearing those where there are suggestions of historic wrongdoing has almost become a national pastime.”
Sir Cliff’s apartment was searched by officers from South Yorkshire and Thames Valley police last week as part of an investigation into an alleged sexual assault on a young boy at a religious event in Sheffield in 1985. Sir Cliff, who was in Portugal when the search took place, has firmly denied any wrongdoing.
A lengthy statement posted on the corporation’s complaints website explained that broadcasting the story was in the public interest in light of other allegations “of historic abuse by prominent people”.
The BBC had a news team on the scene as the search commenced. It said contact was made with Sir Cliff’s agent the moment the search got under way and “well before” the story was broadcast.
The statement said: “In common with other news organisations, we do not disclose our sources. However, due to speculation about this story, we have confirmed that South Yorkshire Police were not our original source. We followed normal journalistic practice and agreed not to publish a story that might jeopardise a police inquiry.”
Yesterday senior legal figures said the police search of Sir Cliff’s home may have been illegal because officers failed to tell a court about a deal with the BBC to televise it. The force confirmed that the magistrate who approved a search warrant for the house was not told about the force’s agreement with the broadcaster.
Sir Cliff looks set to return to the charts. Fans of the veteran pop star have been showing their support by buying copies of his 1992 Number 7 hit I Still Believe in You and it is less than 500 copies off the Top 40.