The following is a blog by the BBC radio presenter Simon Warr from his site, the Warr Zone, concerning what is increasingly being referred to as ‘Cliff’s Law’, the call for anonymity of a suspect up to the time they are charged.
Many people are today celebrating the fact that Sir Cliff Richard has won his ‘violation of privacy’ case against the BBC. He claimed its coverage of the South Yorkshire Police’s raid on his Berkshire home in 2014 was both intrusive and disproportionate, violating his human right to privacy. The High Court agreed. The police raid had been prompted by an unsubstantiated claim by one individual of a sexual assault perpetrated by Sir Cliff in the mid-1980s. Inevitably, the publicity of the raid was devastating for the singer, who was never charged.
This case is a stark reminder of the enormous power of the traditional media to damage irreparably the lives of individuals. In that one fell swoop, before anything had been proven, even before any arrest had been made, Sir Cliff’s name and reputation were trashed throughout the globe, while the BBC was congratulating itself on a massive scoop. To hell with the man who had spent his adult life viewed as one of our national heroes. Here was a person with all the trappings of great success and yet (and I have met him) so grounded and so kind; some might argue an almost saintly character.
Indeed, because he was so famous and was viewed so highly by us all, the BBC thought they had the biggest story ever and they wanted to squeeze every last drop out of it. They must have been so excited to have such a high profile target at their mercy. What a scoop! Indeed, the BBC’s obvious satisfaction of a job well done led to them to nominate the entire unsavoury episode for a television award.
But did anyone for a moment stop to think it was only an allegation which had been laid at Sir Cliff’s door? Did it not occur to them that the allegation may not be true, in which case they’d be destroying the man himself and his highly respected name there and then, for evermore? Of course not. He’d been accused of sexual abuse, so he, like anyone else in this situation, was fair game. Only, because he was a national treasure, the story was even juicier.
It isn’t just the BBC who are quick to ruin the reputation of someone accused of a sex abuse crime, it’s a mindset which permeates the entire media. And not just the traditional media: nowadays anyone accused of a crime (merely accused), particularly involving alleged sex abuse, has to contend with the baying, untutored mob, those social justice warriors who trawl the net to find targets for their unfettered bile. No proof is required to start a storm, just an accusation.
Social media platforms, particularly Twitter and Facebook, are awash with vile smears and oft-repeated fantasies directed at innocent people. I know this because it happened to me as soon as I was arrested and interviewed in December 2012, as a result of some filthy lies which emanated from the mouth of some greedy, opportunistic lowlife who had never met me. Did the mob pause to allow justice to take its course? Of course not. Within a few days of my arrest, one pleasant individual posted the comment that if I killed myself, ‘it’d be the best Christmas prezzie ever.’ How charming.
After the jury in my eventual trial, 672 days later, returned immediately with a unanimous ‘not guilty’ verdict, another delightful man, who knew nothing of the case, apart from titbits of ill-informed internet gossip (and someone who had never met me), stated: ‘Fuck that verdict, he’s fucking guilty.’
Although it can be argued that the vast reach of social media can be empowering, as well as invaluable as a campaigning and marketing tool, it is also evident that terrible harm can be caused by the misuse of current communications technology. None more so than the spreading of malicious falsehoods served up as proven facts by the agenda-driven, often ignorant, mob. This is why anonymity for those accused of a crime (particularly a sexual one) is so important in our modern society. This is why our laws surrounding publicity after arrest need updating.
Only the super-rich truly have the means to go into battle to protect their reputations in the civil courts, where costs can spiral into the hundreds of thousands or even millions of pounds. Pretty much everyone else who becomes the victim of vile allegations online seems to have to ignore the character assassination as best they can. Sad to state (and I know this from first hand experience) some targets of the internet bullies and conspiracy theorists find the pressure – and its devastating consequences in daily life – simply unendurable and take their own lives. And still people argue against anonymity for those merely under investigation. Surely our laws surrounding publicity after arrest need updating.
While it is true that local communities have always been prone to the malignant mischief caused by neighbourhood gossips and fantasy peddlers, the internet has provided these poisonous, malicious types with a means of disseminating their bile and smears to a global audience. A blatant lie or untrue rumour which is posted online in, say, Sheffield can be relayed and rebroadcast from Stuttgart to Shanghai, via San Francisco and Seattle, within a matter of minutes. Someone under investigation for a crime is presumed guilty and this is inevitably relayed as a fact.
Even those defendants who are acquitted by a jury of alleged sexual assault now seem to be considered ‘fair game’ for a campaign of social media vilification, which can even spill over onto the streets. Some of these protests seem to have a lot in common with the mob raging at the foot of the guillotine during the worst excesses of the French Revolution. Justice no longer seems to matter as long as the enraged crowd outside the court gets the verdict it demands. And where the baying mob goes, the politicians tend to follow. After all, popularity for them is the chief driving force. This is why the politicians have been reluctant to review the laws surrounding publicity after arrest. They are, by and large, craven and, anyway, realise there are no votes in facing this glaring flaw in our present system.
And long after the trials are over and the judges and jurors have gone home, the fate of the acquitted is still being decided via the internet and the media: to suggest that anyone falsely accused of sexual assault will be able to carry on his or her life as an innocent citizen thereon in evokes an Alice in Wonderland world. Once an accused’s name is published in the media in association with a sexual allegation, life as that person knew it is effectively over. Forever.
To exacerbate matters, apart from the obvious negative implications on future employment, online posts now seem to have a permanence that ensures spite, bile and lies will be accessible to all who care to type onto their keyboard that person’s name. This means that no matter how innocent a wrongly accused person has been proven to be in court, they are, in effect, permanently on trial online. The lies of the perjurers and fantasists are linked to their names in perpetuity. I am indelibly tied to the vile lies of the couple of chancers who made an allegation against me. And still many people argue against anonymity for those merely under investigation.
Often a decision not to prosecute or an acquittal by a jury is just a seemingly unimportant precursor to being hounded by the arrogance of some injustice collectors behaving like medieval despots. This is one of the reasons why the recent privacy case involving Google and the so-called ‘right to be forgotten’ is so significant: surely a person who has never even been charged with a criminal offence, or who has been acquitted by a jury in a court of law in a matter of minutes, should not have to face a ‘kangaroo court’ of online social justice warriors, along with negative media coverage?
Would it surprise you to learn that when I was charged with the lies laid at my door in 2013, a certain national newspaper covered nearly a half a page informing its readers of my plight, yet, when I was acquitted a year subsequently, there was no mention at all of the verdict. Nothing. (How many pages in that newspaper would have been filled had I been found guilty?) And still many people argue against anonymity for those merely under investigation but not charged.
We need urgent legislation to restore anonymity to people who have not been charged with any offence. In addition, there is a very legitimate argument to be made for extending anonymity to those alleged to have committed certain crimes, particularly involving highly emotive sex abuse cases, until the point of conviction. Once an accused has been convicted, then the public will be made fully aware of the proven facts.
There used to be a saying: ‘today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping paper.’ This is no longer the case, as the internet now provides everyone with a permanent reminder of anyone who is even accused of a crime. Two hundred years ago criminals were branded on their foreheads; nowadays the search engines do the job, only you just need to be accused to be marked for life. Ask Sir Cliff!