POP star Sir Cliff Richard will not become “embroiled” in a row between police and the BBC over coverage of the search of his Berkshire home, his lawyers have said.
The chief constable of South Yorkshire Police David Crompton apologised on Tuesday to the performer if the force was “insensitive” about the search.
Mr Crompton told the Home Affairs Select Committee that his inquiry had been “fatally compromised” by a claimed leak from someone within high profile sex crime inquiry Operation Yewtree to the BBC, leading his force to make a “sweetheart deal” with the broadcaster.
But BBC bosses gave a starkly different account of what happened, claiming their reporter Dan Johnson only knew “a name” and no details of the inquiry before he was briefed by the force.
In a letter to the committee, Sir Cliff’s solicitor Gideon Benaim said: “We trust that you will appreciate that while there is an ongoing police investigation, we would not wish our client to become embroiled in the wider issues being considered by the committee.”
He confirmed that the star had no prior knowledge of last month’s search of his penthouse, which he bought in 2008.
Sir Cliff has been questioned under caution by police as part of an investigation into an alleged sexual assault on a young boy at a religious event in 1985, but not arrested or charged.
Mr Crompton, who was accused of incompetence over the way the operation was handled, told the influential committee the force was backed in to a corner.
He said: “We were placed in a very difficult position because of the original leak and the BBC came to us knowing everything that we knew, as far as the investigation was concerned,” he said.
“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.
“I’m confident that we made the right decision in difficult and unusual circumstances.”
Branding the broadcaster’s coverage of the high profile raid “disproportionate”, he said the raid had been made to look “heavy-handed and intrusive”.
Mr Crompton said: “We had a job to do but I do apologise to Sir Cliff if we were insensitive about the way that we did that. We had a job to do, and we have an investigation. The problem is that investigation could never be done in a low-profile way because it was fatally compromised from the outset.”
South Yorkshire Police has already complained to the BBC about its coverage of the search of Sir Cliff’s penthouse last month, claiming that an analysis piece posted on the broadcaster’s website was an attempt to distance itself from what had happened.
The BBC has confirmed that the leak about the inquiry did not come from South Yorkshire Police, but in line with standard journalistic practice will not reveal the actual source of the information.
Mr Crompton told the committee that BBC staff had “made it clear” to South Yorkshire Police that the source of the leak came from within Operation Yewtree, Scotland Yard’s investigation sparked by sexual abuse allegations against disgraced presenter Jimmy Savile and others.
However the reporter concerned, Mr Johnson, has flatly denied revealing the source.
Mr Crompton argued the analysis piece had given the false impression South Yorkshire Police had worked with the media outlet to generate publicity.
However, committee chairman Keith Vaz said BBC director of news and current affairs James Harding has claimed the police chief has text messages and emails in his possession that would disprove this argument.
Agreeing to hand over the text messages and emails, Mr Crompton added: “Texts and emails are read in the cold light of day. What you can not add to that equation by publishing them are any phone calls that may intersperse different texts or emails and some of that is key to where Mr Harding might be going.
“If you just read the emails, you can get an impression. Unless you’re aware of some of the phone calls interspersed with the emails, you don’t get the full impression.”
BBC director general Lord Hall later told the Committee that if senior editorial staff had been approached by the police warning of damage to the investigation, they would not have run the story.
He said: “Had the chief constable come to a news editor, head of news gathering, James Harding, director of news or myself and said to us ‘if you run this story you will hamper this investigation, it would be damaging to this investigation’ we would not have run the story.
“I want you to be absolutely clear about that. We would not have run the story.”
Lord Hall said reporter Mr Johnson went to South Yorkshire Police to discuss “a number of stories” and had a tip off from the source that he will not reveal referring to Sir Cliff.
The director general said there was “no hint in any of that of us knowing any more than the name Cliff Richard”, while head of newsgathering Jonathan Munro said Mr Johnson denies revealing the source of the tip off, and has kept notes of the meeting.