The BBC has apologised and paid "substantial" libel damages to eight police officers falsely accused of "unlawful killing" in a programme about the death of a mentally ill man.

Barton Taylor, the men's solicitor, told a judge in the high court in London that "very serious allegations" had been made about the conduct and motives of the eight police officers.

The allegations, which Mr Taylor said amounted to an accusation of unlawful killing against the officers, were made on The Nicky Campbell Show on Radio 5 Live in December 2000.

The background to the claim went back to the night of January 11 1999, when the officers, who were all serving in the Metropolitan police, were called to a street in Tottenham, north London.

Mr Taylor said: "A man named Roger Sylvester was naked in the street and behaving strangely. It turned out that he was suffering from the combined effects of mental illness and cannabis.

"For his own safety and welfare, the officers decided to exercise their legal power to take him to a place of safety, in this case St Ann's Hospital."

Mr Taylor told Mr Justice Tugendhat: "At the hospital Mr Sylvester, who was large and strong, struggled violently. In the presence of hospital staff, some of the officers sought to restrain him for his own protection.

"In the course of this Mr Sylvester suffered cardiac arrest. Despite the officers' attempts to resuscitate him, he did not recover and died a week later."

He continued: "Over the following five years Mr Sylvester's tragic death in these circumstances became a matter of great public controversy in London and nationwide."

During the show, Mr Taylor said, the BBC conducted a live interview with members of Mr Sylvester's family, and a campaigner supporting them.

Neither the Metropolitan police, nor any of the officers, had been given the opportunity to take part in the programme.

Mr Taylor said that although the officers were not expressly named they were concerned that previous publicity meant that they were likely to be identified by people who knew them.

The allegations caused the police officers - Sergeant John Anderson and Constables David Clohosy, Simon Creevy, Sean Kiernan, Jaswinder Matharu, Andrew Newman, Ian Smith and Philip Steedman - great distress "at a very difficult time for them", their solicitor said.

The officers have always strongly maintained their innocence in respect of the death of Mr Sylvester.

His death had been the subject of extensive inquiries and legal proceedings which culminated in the November 2004 decision by Mr Justice Collins in the high court that "no jury would be likely to convict any officer of manslaughter" and that a verdict of unlawful killing "would not be a just verdict".

The BBC has agreed to pay each officer substantial damages - the figure was not disclosed in court - and their legal costs "and apologises unreservedly for having broadcast these allegations".

David Glen, counsel for the BBC, told the judge: "The BBC accepts responsibility for what is said in its programmes, by its own staff or outside contributors. On the BBC's behalf I apologise unreservedly to the officers for this programme, as well as for the distress it caused them."

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