A few weeks ago, Sir Cliff Richard won his high court case against the BBC over the coverage of a police raid on his home, the raid relating to an investigation into historical sex abuse. I remember watching the coverage on the BBC and thinking at the time that somehow it wasn’t right. It wasn’t necessarily that his house had been raided that pricked my conscience but the fact that the raid was being filmed for a live audience and sensationalised as the cameras in the overhead helicopter zoomed into various rooms. A few days later in the sauna at my gym I overheard a conversation that went along the lines of ‘I’m not surprised, I always thought he was odd; paedo just like Rolf Harris’. And so, the damage is done, let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good gossip and I dare say a narrative that was repeated up and down the country. But Sir Cliff was never charged nor even arrested, he is innocent.
The case reminded me of something similar in 2003 where another celebrity Matthew Kelly was accused of child sex abuse. He was arrested but never charged, his career effectively took a nose dive and never recovered. He too is innocent and yet is listed amongst many others on a website called the Creep Sheet. The name synonymous with being guilty of something unsavoury and sinister, despite a lack of evidence. The way some of the papers reported that no charges were to be brought, suggested he had ‘got away with it’.
The BBC unsuccessfully sought leave to appeal in the case of Sir Cliff Richard and is considering whether to take the matter to the appeal court. Their concern is the freedom of the press and the rights of the public, citing public interest. Commentary regarding the case suggested that the court judgement impacted victims coming forward in historical abuse cases. Allegations therefore need to be publicised to encourage victims to come forward. This of course helps the prosecution case as evidence of similar fact can be used or in the view of some, abused (Webster R 2002). But what of the accused, are they to be thrown to the wolves?
Balancing individual freedoms and the rights of others including the press is an almost impossible task. The focus within the criminal justice system has shifted and some would say not far enough in favour of victims. What has been forgotten though, is the accused is innocent until proven guilty and despite whatever despicable crimes they are accused of, this is a maxim that criminal justice has stood by for centuries. Whilst the maxim appears to be generally true in court processes, it does not appear to be so outside of court. Instead there has been a dramatic shift from the general acceptance of the maxim ‘innocent until proven guilty’ to a dangerous precedent, which suggests through the press, ‘there’s no smoke without fire’. It is easy to make allegations, not easy to prove them and even more difficult to disprove them. And so, a new maxim, ‘guilty by accusation’. The press cannot complain about their freedoms being curtailed, when they stomp all over everyone else’s.