David Crompton told the Home Affairs Select Committee his inquiry had been “fatally compromised” by a claimed leak of information from Scotland Yard to the BBC, leading his force to make a deal with the broadcaster.
A crew was outside the gated Berkshire development where Richard has a penthouse apartment before police on the day of the search last month.
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. The problem is that investigation could never be done in a low-profile way because it was fatally compromised from the outset.”
Crompton said the BBC had approached his force with detailed information about their inquiry, and staff were convinced the broadcaster would run a story without a deal.
“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.”
Keith Vaz, chairman of the committee, suggested the broadcaster had blackmailed him, but Crompton replied: “Blackmail is a very strong word. It put us in a very difficult position.”
South Yorkshire Police has already complained to the BBC about its coverage of the search last month, claiming that an analysis piece posted on the broadcaster’s website was an attempt to distance itself from what had happened.
Crompton said: “The coverage was disproportionate and made our actions look heavy-handed and intrusive. I do regret that.”
The BBC has already confirmed that the leak about the inquiry did not come from South Yorkshire Police.
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 of sexual abuse allegations against disgraced presenter Jimmy Savile and others.
The police chief admitted he did not go to BBC senior management to ask them not to run the story — but added that there were examples given during the Leveson inquiry into ethics of the press in which journalists had ignored such requests.
In a subsequent evidence session, BBC director general Tony Hall told the committee: “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.”