There have been many occasions when two sides in a row have offered utterly conflicting versions of an event.But it doesn’t happen very often in a Commons committee room and it has probably never happened at all when one side is the Chief Constable of a major police force and the other is the Director-General of the BBC .
Lets be blunt-somebody was either lying or seriously misinformed over what the BBC said to the South Yorkshire police about the investigation into Cliff Richard and the members of the Home Affairs Committee seemed pretty clear it wasn’t the BBC at fault.
The Committee Chairman Keith Vaz offered an immediate verdict that the BBC had acted ‘perfectly properly’ in this affair.
Two weeks ago on Radio Four’s Media Show I offered a preliminary view that whilst there was nothing to suggest the BBC had crossed a line it looked like the South Yorkshire Police had crossed a few lines of their own.My view was confirmed by what happened at the Select Committee.
But I’m interested in how some of the loose ends play out.
Loose End Number One: does South Yorkshire Police have any hard evidence to support their allegations against the BBC?
The Chief Constable David Crompton,said his force did a deal with the BBC because ‘my concern was that if we showed the BBC the door, the very clear impression which had been left with my staff in the media department was that they were likely to publish the story. That would have impeded our investigation’.
The BBC strongly denied leaving that impression and Director-General ,Tony Hall, pointed out that if Crompton ‘had said to us, or others in the BBC News operation, that broadcasting this story would in any way have damaged this investigation we would not have run it’.
Crompton’s other main allegation was about how BBC reporter Dan Johnson first came to know Cliff Richard was being investigated.
In his letter to Committee Chairman Keith Vaz in advance of the meeting Crompton wrote:
‘On July 14 and July 15, 2014, shortly after the force had taken receipt of the investigation, a BBC journalist made contact with South Yorkshire Police both by telephone and in a face-to-face meeting. The journalist made reference to the investigation of the allegation and he named the suspect and indicated that the information was from a source outside South Yorkshire Police. The nature of the source was such that South Yorkshire Police believed the source to be credible’.
No mention in the letter of who exactly this source was,but at the hearing Crompton came out directly and said Johnson’s source was the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Yew Tree team.And who had told the South Yorkshire police that? None other, Crompton claimed, than Dan Johnson himself.
Crompton told the Committee:’Dan Johnson,in the initial meeting and subsequently ,made that comment to my staff and it was noted down in the notes of the meeting’.The Head of BBC Newsgathering, Jonathan Munro,later told the Committee that Johnson totally denied saying this.
I should say that Jonathan Munro was a close colleague of mine at ITN and I have the greatest respect for his judgement.Dan Johnson happens to have been on the Broadcast Journalism course at City University London and would have sat through my lectures on compliance. So instinctively I find their case the more convincing.
But I remember the words of Greg Dyke when,a decade ago, he told Andrew Gilligan -at the height of what became the ‘Hutton affair- ‘you’d better be fucking right’ and then turned to colleagues in the room and said ‘he’d better be fucking right’. Greg later learned that on some points Gilligan wasn’t right.
So is there anything revealing in the texts and emails between Johnson and the South Yorkshire Police which Crompton is releasing? I assume the BBC will have learned its lesson from Hutton and checked all the reporter’s texts and emails.
And is there anything definitive about Johnson’s source in the official note of his meeting with the South Yorkshire Police media team. Crompton mentioned it but didn’t specifically quote from it.
Loose end Number two is rather different -what exactly is the police’s policy on getting reporter’s phone records from mobile companies to try to find the source of their stories?
One Committee member,Mark Reckless MP, raised this issue when he asked Crompton how the Met might go about finding out who,if anybody,in Yew Tree had tipped off Dan Johnson about the Cliff Richard investigation.
The exchange went:
Reckless : If they were to conduct that investigation what actions would they take as part of that investigation?
Crompton: Probably the first thing they would do would be speak to the reporter.
Reckless:First thing they wouldn’t do would be to get hold of the reporters’ telephone records?
Crompton:That would be part and parcel of speaking to the reporter
Reckless: I’m very interested in that conformation,is that standard police practice?You’ve seen very controversially today ,for most of us at least,Plebgate operation,as part of the internal disciplinary proceedings ,the police took the phone records of the Sun news desk and Newton Dunn the Political Editor from the phone provider and on that basis found the source and subjected them to disciplinary proceedings ending in them being sacked.Don’t we have protection for journalists sources in this country?
Crompton:Yes and it is a very jealously guarded principle.
Reckless:So why is it standard practice would you get the mobile phone records of the journalist ..
Crompton:Apologies I think I took a step too far in that answer.You would certainly speak to the reporter in that instance.To be really clear to nail this one nobody would have any legal right to those mobile phone records unless there were certain serious criminal offences at play which would then give you the power to do that.
So Crompton effectively back down after claiming that getting a reporter’s phone records would be ‘part and parcel’ of an investigation.
That definitely will not be the end of this issue.