mosley1.jpgMax Mosley’s victory in his action against the News Of The World over the allegations of a ‘Nazi-style’ orgy is good news for Max but is it bad news for good journalism?

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 case is just another example of the sick state of the ruling class in this country, and as such I applaud the News of the World for blowing the whistle on Mr Mosley. The fact that this case was won with the help of the “human rights” (human wrongs?) law is yet another nail in the coffin of that insidious beast, the European Union, that is interfering with British justice on every level today.”
So the issue is should a newspaper be punished for getting something wrong? Yes. But should it be punished purely for invading someone’s privacy? No. Will it effect investigative journalism? I think it might.
I am sure well-funded national papers won’t be greatly put off by this. And no harm will be done if they are much more careful in the future. But those journalists who seek to hold public figures to account are finding it increasingly difficult if celebrities and other public figures can insist on prior injunctions to protect their ‘right to privacy’. The News Of the World can afford the legal fees to contest injunctions but many other outfits can’t.

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?

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July 24th, 2008|Journalism|7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Hilton Gray July 24, 2008 at 12:10 pm - Reply

    Good day for Max and a good day for freedom! Yes our freedom – the common man-in-the-streets freedom – from you bloody sucking vermin in the press. Woohoo well done Max!
    And another thing – even if Max had been wearing an SS uniform and the prozzies had on swastika armbands, guess what?… ITS NONE OF YOUR EFFING BUSINESS!!!!

  2. Gary Naylor July 24, 2008 at 12:23 pm - Reply

    I agree with every word.

  3. Gary Naylor July 24, 2008 at 1:32 pm - Reply

    That’s every word of Charlie’s!

  4. John W July 24, 2008 at 1:57 pm - Reply

    I’m confused why you think a newspaper shouldn’t be punished for invading someone’s privacy? The personal costs in terms of emotional harm etc for those whose privacy is wrongly invaded can be huge. Anything that encourages the press to use their freedom responsibly is surely a good thing?

    And surely some blame should be placed on NOTW for letting this get to court, rather than printing an apology/rescinding the article. The principle of a free, inquisitive and investigative press is worth fighting for – but surely a grubby little story like the Mosley one wasn’t the best choice to fight the principle on – knowing that the court’s judgement might well set a precedent. The press should learn to choose its battles.

  5. Nigel Barlow July 24, 2008 at 3:22 pm - Reply

    Hi Charlie,

    Having read quite a bit of comment on this judgement,I come down to the real case being that ,as Roy Greenslade says,the News of the World didn’t come up with a very good defence.In particular,the Nazi link which if proven would have weighted the scales towards the public interest rather than the privacy argument.

    As to whether this ruling will alter a media organisations willingness to persue investigative journalism in a proper manner? Highly unlikely if it is “in the public interest.”

    Whether it stops maverick campaigns by individual newspapers that may be in the public interest?Well that is another matter

    I read earlier in the week,can’t recall where that the fine could well be written off to marketing and publicity expenses.In the case of the NOW,they conducted the defence as if that was the case

    Ju

  6. Patricia Albright July 24, 2008 at 9:27 pm - Reply

    Everyone is reading about this case today because it involves a public figure who sued, but I’d like to make the point that ordinary sex workers, who are not in the public eye, are being exposed by the media all the time in the name of sensational sex stories. Tabloid newspapers especially frequently run articles exposing ordinary “working girls”, despite the fact it is not against the law to work as an escort and thus these ladies have committed no crime. The lives of many sex workers in the UK and Ireland have been ruined by this type of journalism. Last month, in Ireland, a TV show exposed two separate independent escorts on national TV for apparently no reason other than salacious TV. I don’t know if today’s verdict will discourage this type of journalism but I hope it will.

  7. John Kelly July 25, 2008 at 11:57 pm - Reply

    Good or bad for journalism? How about good or bad for bloggers? Responsible observers of the news media may now without embarrassment blog about sex. The Google-spawned hits should go through the roof!

    But seriously, I find it an amazing dichotomy that a country with such strict libel laws still has a healthy trade in sex- and sin-related newspaper exposes. Every week it seems there’s another “Our man made his excuses and left” story. Only occasionally is there outrage. Of course, they ARE interesting, in a prurient way. And, of course, Mosley didn’t sue for libel–he could hardly claim the substance of the NOTW story wasn’t true. So he went for privacy instead.

    It’s always a bit curious when someone brings an invasion of privacy case, since it has the singular effect of creating less privacy–suddenly the thing you didn’t want people to know about is on the front pages again. But I think he’s a public figure and if he’d been engaged in icky Nazi role play then that’s a story. It’s a shame that the NOTW was so loosey-goosey with the journalistic end of things, but maybe it’s not surprising.

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