South Yorkshire Police has complained to the BBC and accused it of breaching its own editorial guidelines after the broadcaster found out about a search the force was planning to carry out at the home of pop star Sir Cliff Richard.
The singer's Berkshire penthouse was searched for five hours on Thursday by officers from South Yorkshire and Thames Valley Police as part of an investigation into an alleged sexual assault on a boy under the age of 16 at a religious event in 1985.
South Yorkshire Police said it was "disappointing" that the BBC was slow to acknowledge that the force was not the source of the "leak", but said it did confirm to a reporter at the corporation the date of the search of Sir Cliff's house, but only because the BBC had already contacted the force to say it knew about a planned investigation.
Sir Cliff Richard's penthouse was searched for five hours on Thursday by officers from South Yorkshire and Thames Valley Police
It comes as the former attorney general Dominic Grieve became the most senior politician yet to question the leaking of the investigation.
“I can see that police might not want to warn somebody about a search because they fear a suspect will destroy the evidence," he told the Telegraph. "But it was much odder to tip off the BBC that they were carrying out the raid. That seems quite extraordinary.
“Unless the police can show the sound public reason for doing that, it suggests a collusive relationship with the BBC which is very odd."
Keith Vaz MP, chairman of the House of Commons home affairs select committee, said "serious questions need to be asked” and that he would write to David Crompton, South Yorkshire's chief constable.
Writing in the independent, Geoffrey Robertson QC called the treatment of the singer "unacceptable".
"By treating Cliff Richard as though he were a bank robber or a mass murderer, the police from Thames Valley and South Yorkshire, aided and abetted by the BBC and a Sheffield lay justice, have blasted his reputation around the world without giving him the first and most basic right to refute the allegation," the barrister wrote. "The police, by choosing to raid the property in broad daylight where they must have known its occupant was away, deliberately chose to defame him.
"If the outrageous treatment of Paul Gambuccini and Jimmy Tarbuck is any guide, Cliff Richard will remain in a cruel limbo for 18 months or so until the police and the CPS decide whether to charge him. This has been one of the most intolerable features of other high-profile arrests for "historic" offences, namely the inability of police and prosecutors to deliver Magna Carta’s truly historic promise that justice will not be delayed."
Sir Cliff, who was in Portugal when the search took place, firmly denied any wrongdoing and hit out at the fact BBC journalists were apparently tipped off about the plan. A press helicopter was reportedly at his home before police even arrived.
In a statement the force reiterated that "at no point" had it leaked information, which has been confirmed publicly by the BBC. On Friday Jonathan Munro, the BBC's head of news gathering, said there had been lots of questions about the original source of the story, tweeting: "We won't say who, but can confirm it was not South Yorks Police."
South Yorkshire Police said: "The force was contacted some weeks ago by a BBC reporter who made it clear he knew of the existence of an investigation. It was clear he (was) in a position to publish it. The force was reluctant to co-operate but felt that to do otherwise would risk losing any potential evidence, so in the interests of the investigation it was agreed that the reporter would be notified of the date of the house search in return for delaying publication of any of the facts.
"Contrary to media reports, this decision was not taken in order to maximise publicity, it was taken to preserve any potential evidence. South Yorkshire Police considers it disappointing that the BBC was slow to acknowledge that the force was not the source of the leak. A letter of complaint has been sent to the Director General of the BBC making it clear that the broadcaster appears to have contravened it's editorial guidelines."
The force added that it would now welcome an investigation into the original leak.
A BBC spokeswoman said: "A BBC journalist approached South Yorkshire Police with information about the investigation.
"The BBC agreed to follow normal journalistic practice and not to publish a story that might jeopardise a police inquiry."