The director general of the BBC has told MPs the broadcaster’s coverage of a police raid on the home of Sir Cliff Richard was over the top and had so far cost it more than £1.5m in costs and damages. Tony Hall told the digital, culture, media and sport committee, the total cost of Richard’s high court privacy victory over the BBC was not yet known, but most of it would be covered by an insurance policy. Lord Hall also said free licence fees for over-75s would be reviewed. “The concession, as it’s currently formulated, comes to an end in June 2020 … we, the board, have got to decide what to replace it with,” he told MPs. It could continue or be reformed, he continued.
The BBC was mindful that those over 65 or 75 “consume many, many more BBC services than others”, he said, adding: “There is real hardship among some, or many, of those over 75 too.” MPs heardthe BBC has so far paid £143,500 in damages and £850,000 in costs to Richard. It has also paid £515,000 in costs to South Yorkshire police. But followup hearings to deal with the singer’s specific claims in relation to the financial loss were ongoing, Hall said. Hall said his own view of the BBC coverage, which used a helicopter to fly over the Richard’s Berkshire home to film a police raid on the property in 2014, was that “we overdid it”. “I think the helicopter was overdoing it … it was something to report but down the bulletin,” he said. Officers from the South Yorkshire force were investigating a historical sexual assault allegation made against the singer. Richard, who has always denied any wrongdoing, was not arrested and not charged with any offence. He later sued the BBC and won. The BBC decided not to appeal against the ruling. Hall said the judge took the view privacy was more important than the public interest. “I felt the case itself was not one I was happy to go to appeal on because of the way I thought we overdid it, to be blunt with you, ”Hall said.
The legal advice was it was very unlikely the BBC would win an appeal, he continued, adding it would cost more money and prolong Richard’s ordeal. But Hall said parliament needed to clarify this issue over reporting, “which I don’t think is for judges to decide”. “The policy issue is at what point does the balance between the freedom to know and information outweigh the individual’s right to privacy. And that is very complex,” he told the committee. He said he was out of the country at the time of the raid and not involved in decision making on the story. Hall said he had approached Richard to suggest they sat down and tried to “sort this out without going to court. Sadly, but I guess understandably, the legal view came back which was: ‘We don’t want to talk. We are prepared to settle if you say you’ve acted illegally.’ But I don’t think we acted illegally.” Hall also told MPs the BBC had lost some of its big names partly because their pay had been published. Radio 2 DJ Chris Evans has announced he is to join Virgin Radio, while former Radio 4 PM host Eddie Mair has joined LBC. MPs heard the BBC was dealing with just over 200 cases involving equal pay through an informal process and that 68 formal grievances were outstanding.
“We are seeking to answer these historic issues as quickly as possible in a proactive, open way,” Anne Bulford, the deputy director general, told the committee. Before giving evidence to the committee, Hall said the BBC was planning to streamline its online presence after internal research found just a handful of its numerous platforms accounted for 90% of its audience. In future it will focus on its main core services: iPlayer, news, weather, sport, children’s programming, the study resource Bitesize, and the audio and music app Sounds, which is to replace iPlayer Radio. “In the global marketplace against well-resourced competition, we have to concentrate on a smaller number of stand out services that deliver our very best content online,” Hall said in a speech to BBC employees in Salford. The BBC Earth and BBC Arts sections of the website will be removed and there will be fewer features as well as less focus on celebrity gossip. The cull of services comes as the BBC attempts to overcome the challenge posed by services such as YouTube and Netflix.