High stakes for BBC over Sir Cliff appeal

Amol Rajan
Media editor
@amolrajanBBCon Twitter

Image source, PA

For the BBC, the decision whether to spend more money on this case is a difficult dilemma with high stakes.

There are many factors to consider.

First, will an appeal cause further distress to Sir Cliff? The corporation has said that it is sorry for the distress caused to him. If they are sincere about that - and my sense is they are - why extend the agony?

Second, to fight this verdict is to keep it in the public eye. When confronted with bad news, institutional leaders often think the best thing is to draw a line and move on. An appeal could create the possibility of more adverse publicity.

Third, what are the chances of success? Legal advice will be crucial - though no guarantee, of course, of the likely outcome.

And finally, this is public money. Sir Cliff is commonly regarded as a national treasure. Why throw more of other people's money - ie licence-fee payers' incomes - at a case in which a national treasure is aggrieved?

Against all this, and in favour of a further appeal, there are practical and philosophical points.

On the former, what is the cost of not appealing? If the freedom of journalists is diminished as a result of editorial decisions made by the BBC, then not fighting this verdict could lead to resentment in Fleet Street, where the BBC lacks friends.

And then there is the principle. Many journalists, inside the corporation and beyond, really do feel that journalism will be damaged.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
Fran Unsworth is the BBC's director of news and current affairs

Leading figures in the newspaper industry think this is just the latest slap in the face for an industry in turmoil. If the liberty of journalists to report without fear or favour is reduced, how can an organisation like BBC News sit idly by? What would Lord Reith say?

See - it's complex.

Ultimately, the legal advice and cost will determine the BBC's actions. Any prudent organisation has insurance for crises like this. But BBC News needs to save tens of millions, and the rest of the BBC much more.

At the best of times, every penny spent by the BBC has to be justified.

During austerity, that gets ever harder. If the BBC fights, loses, and is seen to have wasted public funds, the current support from Fleet Street could switch to anger, and brutally fast.

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