The young woman turned and ran. Just audible over the sound of her heeled shoes on the pavement were the footsteps of the pursuing mob. She knew they were most likely all men – they usually were. She also guessed that they would be far older than her own age of just 21. The sound of the mob grew louder and the woman knew she only had seconds until the pacier members caught up with her. Within seconds she was surrounded and vastly outnumbered. One of the men reached into his coat and pulled out a black metallic object. Although the woman couldn’t make it out clearly, she knew exactly what it was. The man pointed the object at her and with an intense flash of light, he took the shot.
The young woman in this narrative was the actress Sienna Miller, who appeared before the Leveson Inquiry in 2011. In the evidence she submitted, she spoke of a scenario such as this and – although I have hyped it up slightly – she made an interesting point: “The fact that they had cameras in their hands made it legal. Take away the cameras and what have you got? You’ve got a pack of men chasing a woman.”
There will no doubt be die-hard free pressers who will struggle to sympathise with public figures such as Sienna Miller, and will retort the heavily trotted-out line: “she chose to be in the public eye and therefore she chose to sacrifice her privacy!”
Unfashionable as it may be in current media discourse, I don’t share this view. While newspapers are duty-bound to provide informative and entertaining stories for their readers, this needs to be carefully balanced with a respect to individual privacy. Freedom works both ways and journalists need to concede that the value of free reporting comes with the responsibility not to infringe on the liberty of their “target”.
Yet this is not to argue that such activity should be regulated further – that would undoubtedly create an extremely blurry legal ground for genuine cases of public interest reporting, which is essential. Instead, it would surely be preferable for journalists to self-regulate and potentially show restraint when tempted to chase a young woman down a darkened street.
If methods of gathering news are lawful and the content is accurate, no story should be legally off-limits. The searching of Sir Cliff Richard’s house by police in 2014 was, without question, a public interest story. In the aftermath of the Jimmy Savile sex offences scandal, we were all invested in the subsequent investigations which followed. Would any more offenders be identified? Would the police conduct their inquiries appropriately?
Having a helicopter whirring overhead as police raid your house must be awful, and it must have been unimaginably tough for Sir Cliff to cope with. However, and I don’t say this flippantly, there is a risk of Sir Cliff making this story all about him, when in fact he is just a small part of a much wider and serious problem.
He may be the unfortunate victim of unwanted press coverage, yet he is not the real victim in this whole saga. The victims of sexual assault, harassment and paedophilia are the individuals about whom we should have the most concern. These are the people who benefit from a free press reporting during an ongoing investigation, as it allows for the police inquest to be made public and, in turn, those with personal experiences may feel compelled to come forward and strengthen the overall body of evidence. This is how justice is achieved – whether the suspect is innocent or guilty.
In my opinion, which I hope is fashionable, establishing the truth in a potential sexual abuse case trumps the dismay of unwanted media attention, however traumatic it may be at the time. Sir Cliff is an innocent man who is entitled to be hacked off with this whole affair, and the police should apologise for the stress that they caused him, though they should not regret mounting the necessary initial inquest.
However, the fine of £210,000 ordered by High Court judge, Mr Justice Mann, will set a legal precedent for a future stranglehold on the free reporting of police activities, which all but seals a coffin for the notion of open justice. This is why the most recent campaign to institute a “Cliff’s Law”, in which a suspect cannot be named before being charged is so dangerous. By placing a lockdown on investigative reporting, it threatens both the media’s ability to hold the police accountable during their inquests, while similarly shutting down the supply of further evidence from those who have something to offer the case.
While constitutionally absent, there is a societal expectation that the media will inform us of our world and scrutinise those with the power to shape it. The British press is not perfect, but it is free, and placing further restrictions on it would not only threaten the media but the freedoms on which we all depend.