Neil McNicholas: Lessons have to be learned from Sir Cliff Richard’s ordeal

Sir Cliff Richard after winning his privacy case against the BBC.
Sir Cliff Richard after winning his privacy case against the BBC.
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MORE power to Sir Cliff Richard – not just in his efforts to clear his name, but (and this never seems to get mentioned by the media to the same extent) in trying to have the law changed to protect a person’s identity until they have been charged with a crime.

The person making an accusation enjoys anonymity, so why doesn’t the accused given that false accusations are so easily made by people with vindictive intent, an axe to grind or who are motivated by the thought of compensation.

And once an accusation is made, it can be very difficult to shake that off even when the person is subsequently proved
to be innocent. Mud sticks, as
they say – and as Sir Cliff has experienced certainly to his emotional cost.

When someone – especially perhaps a young person who is still learning about life – comes to me in Confession and says they have been telling lies, I try to explain to them that being known to be an honest person is a tremendous quality but one that is easily lost, and once lost is equally difficult to restore.

Similarly how does someone set about restoring their reputation when they have been falsely accused of something as serious as the sexual abuse of a young person?

Human nature being what it is, people are always going to think there must be something behind the accusation (“no smoke without fire”) otherwise why would the accusation have been made?

The rights and wrongs (in this case the wrongs) of a police raid on Sir Cliff’s home in his absence, and without even informing him that it was going to take place and what it was all about, will, I’m sure, continue to be examined if only to ensure such a thing doesn’t happen again – the
courts having judged that it shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

But for him to find out about it like the rest of the country by seeing the whole thing broadcast on the television news is truly outrageous and, as the courts have decided, was an invasion of his privacy and impugned his reputation.

Again, we have to remember, what happened was based solely on an accusation against which, at that point in time, he hadn’t even had the opportunity to defend himself. Then, and
since, he has never been charged. So what will now happen to
the person who falsely accused him?

Sir Cliff’s name and reputation has been dragged through the mud, but does the accuser get away with it? That can’t be right and the law must be changed to ensure it can’t happen – whether it’s Sir Cliff or Joe Bloggs – and also to act as a deterrent to people bringing false accusations.

The BBC’s justification for filming the whole thing from a news helicopter was “the public’s right to know” – how often have we heard that one?

How does the public have a right to know about a police raid on Sir Cliff’s home in connection with an alleged crime of which he hadn’t even been charged?

And, having started the ball rolling of defaming his character and causing him untold personal and emotional anxiety and stress, “Our mistake, sorry” doesn’t really cut it.

In this case the public had no right to know because at that point in time there wasn’t anything definitive to know.

The trouble is that the media in particular finds Sir Cliff’s life something of an anomaly.

He has never fitted into the typical image of a pop star. He has remained unmarried and therefore, so it goes, there must be a story there somewhere.

His life has been squeaky clean by comparison with his pop peers over the years and therefore there must be a story there also.

He is a self-confessed Christian and quite open about his faith and so there must be a story there too.

And even though there never have been any such stories, that doesn’t stop the media lurking in hiding waiting for the opportunity for something to happen so they can say “See, we told you”.

It was the scent of sensationalism, not the public’s right to know, that fuelled that BBC helicopter over Sir Cliff’s home.

Will lessons be learned? I doubt it. And will the law be change to protect the innocent? Let’s hope so.

Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.