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Is the Cliff Richard coverage too harsh or is the press simply doing its job?

Cliff Richard may not be in the mood right now to recognise the debt he owes to the British press but in time he may come to realise the magnitude of its restraint. This despite the massive coverage he has received after police raided his home near London.

Today's Sun front page

Detectives spent five hours searching Richard's apartment after claims that he sexually assaulted a boy at a Billy Graham evangelist rally in 1985. The singer says the claims against him are "completely false".

Richard has been under siege for months from the internet with filings linking him to every paedophile scandal or investigation, real or imagined. He has been "net stepped", the cyber equivalent of "door stepping" where reporters stand outside someone's home until the victim is forced to comment.

Door stepping, at its worst, is a form of bullying and harassment but net stepping is much worse. Not only is someone dogging the victim but everyone knows it and is allowed to comment, putting more pressure on him or her to break cover and put out a statement. If they don't say anything they are considered guilty, if they do say something it's open season for the mainstream press.

So, as he sits in his Portugese vineyard home at Quinta do Moinho, Richard should not be too harsh on British newspapers and broadcasters. For despite all the internet rumours and allegations there were no sniggering diary stories or Sunday paper innuendos.

The story only broke when South Yorkshire police searched the singer's home, not because of some internet rumour.

This is where the Cliff Richard story is so totally different to that of Rolf Harris. Harris had been arrested and the press were forced or kowtowed into keeping that fact secret for up to six months. When someone is arrested it should be in the public domain. Secret justice is bad justice.

There will be some people who will argue that Richard, who has not been arrested, is being demonised by the wall-to-wall coverage of the police search and they may have a point, but the reality is that police searched his home. It happened. It is fact. That's what the press does: report facts.

Did it have to come out that the search related to a one-off claim of sexual assault? Yes, otherwise it would have been fuel on the fire of the other internet rumours that are not being investigated by the police. What should have been made more clear is the statement that "police removed some items". They always do – computers and files cannot be checked on the premises. It does not mean they have found something.

There should be no complaints about the coverage surrounding Richard. If the investigation is dropped his life will go on much as before with his sexuality being the source of gratuitous speculation. He can live with that.

However, Richard may not like the jokes. It is said that he already has a criminal record. It is called "Mistletoe and Wine".

Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror

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