Sir Cliff Richard, the BBC and the Ethics of Interviewing

Cliff Richard
Cliff Richard performing in Australia in 2013 (Photo: Eva Rinaldi/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2,0)

The UK media are engaged in a feverish debate about the implications of the judgement in the civil action over breach of privacy between Sir Cliff Richard, the BBC and South Yorkshire Police (SYP). The judge’s decision, upholding Sir Cliff’s claim, will have the effect of making it much more difficult for UK media to report that a person is ‘under investigation’ by the police, before there is an actual arrest and charge. Predictably, high-sounding moral postures are being struck, by an unlikely alliance of broadsheet and tabloid journalists, claiming serious encroachments on press freedom. Both investigation and muck-raking are threatened. However, the case also raises issues about ethical standards in interviewing, which have implications beyond journalism.

Some background for international readers. Sir Cliff Richard began his career as a rather improbable Elvis Presley clone in the early 1960s. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, he rapidly shrugged off this label and developed into a family entertainer of the kind often described as a ‘national treasure’. Although he never ‘broke’ the US, he established himself as a star of the UK music and TV industries. He has been famously protective of his privacy, although he has been happy to be identified as one of the few prominent Christians in UK show business.

In recent years, the UK has experienced a moral panic about the alleged sexual misconduct of celebrities, going back to the 1960s. Prompted by the Jimmy Savile case, the Metropolitan Police set up Operation Yewtree, a specialist unit to co-ordinate investigations into these allegations. Some investigations were contracted out to other police services where the allegations focused on a particular locality. This initiative has led both to significant convictions and to well-publicized investigations that did not result in charges.  The present case began with a leak from that unit, or someone close to it, about Sir Cliff being investigated by SYP for an alleged assault on an under-age boy during a Billy Graham revival meeting in Sheffield in the 1980s. (The investigation eventually concluded that there was no basis to the allegations and Sir Cliff was never arrested or charged.)

This leak was considered to be a scoop at the BBC, who successfully concealed the information from rival media and organized extensive coverage of the, legally-authorized, police search of Sir Cliff’s home within a gated community in Surrey. The coverage included helicopter filming with long lens cameras, capturing images of the search in progress through the windows of the apartment. There were echoes of the OJ Simpson coverage by US media. The BBC’s ability to mount this operation stemmed from their relationship with SYP. Much of the legal issue turned on the basis of that relationship and the interactions between BBC journalists, the police press officers and the police officers supervising the investigation. This is discussed at some length in the judgement and is only summarized here.

In essence, the BBC claimed that SYP had voluntarily co-operated in the coverage, while SYP claimed that the BBC had effectively blackmailed them by threatening to publicize the investigation, thereby compromising its integrity. The judge preferred the SYP version and was fairly scathing about the BBC witnesses. One passage is of particular interest here:

I do not believe that (journalist) is a fundamentally dishonest man, but he was capable of letting his enthusiasm get the better of him in pursuit of what he thought was a good story so that he could twist matters in a way that could be described as dishonest in order to pursue his story. Thus in the present case, as will appear, he was happy for SYP to be under the false impression that he had a story to broadcast and was in a position to broadcast it when that was not true; and he was also prepared to give another false impression to (press officer), again, as will appear below.  That sort of attitude has caused me to consider more carefully than I would have wished his evidence in respect of the main issues in this case on which he gave evidence.  In saying that I am in no way characterising him as a generally dishonest man. I am sure he is not. It is just, to repeat myself, that I considered he was capable of letting his enthusiasm for his story get the better of his complete regard for truth on occasions (my italics)

The journalist seems to have allowed SYP, in the course of various interactions, to believe that he knew more than he actually did, in order to extract additional information from them and, ultimately, to get access to the search. The judge is clearly unhappy with this and the journalist does not seem to have managed to defend himself in a persuasive fashion.

I have previously commented about the paradoxes that arise in the different ethical standards and regulatory processes that apply to journalists and to qualitative researchers. Ethics regulators block researchers from doing any number of things that journalists take for granted. Here the reverse obviously applies. The journalist is doing something that is commonplace among social science interviewers. Our informants frequently assume we know things that we do not – so we string them along and try to work out what is going on. As Rosalie Wax, an experienced anthropologist, once advised, a coquette is in a much better position to learn about men than is a nun. This is a skill we would teach and defend in a professional manner.

Of course, some informants spot what is happening. In this case, Sir Cliff’s own PR agent immediately suspected that the BBC were trying to gull him into confirming or denying a speculative story and refused an immediate response to their request for a comment. We might be puzzled as to why SYP fell for it: the same tactic is also routine in police interrogations: “we know exactly what happened – but we need you to fill in or confirm a few details…” Sophisticated criminals recognize the tactic but others are led into confessions.

Many aspects of the BBC’s conduct are rightly criticized in the judgement. However, it is important for qualitative researchers to defend their right to tease out information that their informants would only disclose to someone who already had insider knowledge. It may also be desirable for journalists and qualitative researchers to develop a common approach to the ethics of interviewing that can be more robustly asserted in cases of this kind.

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Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He also serves as a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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