Mr Justice Eady seems to be single-handedly creating a de-facto privacy law in the UK made up of interpretations of the Human Rights Act. Media lawyers have told me they think it could have a serious chilling effect on good journalists. This judgement edges that process forward, although one has to be careful to draw too strong a precedent from this particular case.
The News of the World has got off lightly because only general not punitive damages were awarded. £60,000 is a lot more than Naomi Campbell got off the Mirror (and the legal costs could reach £1 million) but it may be a price worth paying in commercial terms for the massive publicity this case has given the newspaper. But what about the principles at stake?
I disagree with Roy Greenslade on one aspect of this. Roy argues that Mosley was not a public figure and there was no public interest. I can’t see how the boss of Formula One isn’t a public figure. If he had been someone who enjoyed Nazi ‘culture’ then I think that’s a story. In Germany it is pretty much illegal. But as Roy Greenslade correctly details, the point is that the News of the World got that aspect of its story wrong:
“Firstly, it failed to have the German dialogue in the S&M orgy translated. Why not? Potentially that might have provided better “evidence” of a Nazi theme than the English speech. Second, Myler admitted having seen little of the video himself. Surely an editor about to publish a sensational story should have concerned himself with every possible detail in advance of publication? Third, Myler expressed surprise that his reporter had failed to obtain a signed statement from Woman E before printing her story. Should he not have known that from the beginning? Fourth, the inbuilt, old-fashioned anti-German prejudice of the staff meant that they confused German play-acting for Nazism. To speak in German or with a German accent does not make a person a Nazi.”
The News of the World is clearly relaxed about the result and some of its readers are expressing their support. They are worth reading because there is a tendency among some people – including judges – to assume that if they find a story distasteful then no-one else has the right to read it. Here’s the views of the News of the World’s readers:
“Maybe the NOTW went over the top, but as a reader, I enjoyed every last word of this particular story. Hope it doesn’t frighten the tabloids from printing similar stories.. it’s what we expect !!”
This week a journalist told me that they had abandoned investigations simply because of the possibility of injunctions on privacy grounds. Rather than spend a lot of time and effort standing up a story to make it legally water-tight they were simply dropped. At a time when editorial budgets are tightening I fear that the News Of The World’s blunders may have allowed to courts to strenthen the hands of the rich and powerful.
If that means one less medacious story then that’s no bad thing. But do we really want to end up with the kind of tepid, consensual, deferential news media that they enjoy in France?