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Thursday, July 10, 2008 

Max Mosley, the News of the World, and the fight between press freedom and personal privacy.

There are some cases or matches where it would be wonderful if both sides could lose. Chelsea versus Manchester United in the Champions League instantly springs to mind; Polly Toynbee vs Richard Littlejohn on Question Time; Iran against Israel; BBC3 against the equivalent crap on Channel 4.

So it almost is with Max Mosley against the News of the World. On the one hand we have a man who is hand-in-glove with Bernie Ecclestone, who makes up for what he lacks in height with vindictiveness and avarice; on the other we have the News of the Screws, undoubtedly one of the worst "newspapers" the world has ever seen, which makes its money out of scandal, sex, lies and populist right-wing politics of the most venal kind. Add into this my own little "incident" with the Screws' finest, Mazher Mahmood, and we have the situation so succinctly summed up by Alien vs Predator: whoever wins, we lose.

As much as the battle between Mosley and the Screws is over the issue of privacy, and how far the press can go in seeking out scandal, along with what truly defines the public interest, it's also a wonderful insight into how one of the most ruthless tabloids of them all operates. The anecdote of how the woman, known only as Woman E, who filmed the orgy and who today withdrew from giving evidence for the Screws, was first offered £25,000 but in the end was only paid £12,000 will be familiar for those with a similar penchant for Private Eye, who recall the story of Iraq veteran Justin Smith, who was even given a contract for £15,000 for an interview before the Screws then decided it was worth only £1,000, £1,500 tops. Colin Myler, the News of the Screws editor, also admitted in the court that he didn't know that the hack responsible for the eventual story, Neville Thurlbeck, had planned on fitting Woman E out with a camera, which seems like something that other reporters might have discussed with their editors first. Nor did they set out with the intention of capturing a "Nazi themed" orgy, which is now their defence for exposing Mosley; rather they thought there was going to just film an S&M orgy. Myler also admitted that he himself had been filmed having sex, so he knew what Mosley probably felt like, but he didn't elaborate.

Equally hilarious was Thurlbeck's own suggestion that the News of the Screws needed to film the orgy because of the "very, very high" standard of proof required by the paper. This is the same newspaper which has recently settled cases against it brought by Cherie Blair and the loathsome Katie Price and Peter Andre over allegations made by their former nanny. It's also the self-same newspaper which has been home for years to the fantasies of Mazher Mahmood, who brought the paper such exclusives as the plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham, which turned out to be almost entirely concocted and based around entrapment, and the group of men accused of attempting to purchase the non-existent "red mercury", whose trial ended with all of them being found not guilty.

Also intriguing is just where the security services might fit into all this. It was revealed some time back that Woman E's husband worked for MI5, and subsequently resigned because of his wife's activities; now it emerges that it was in fact he that first went to the newspaper with details of Mosley's S&M habit. It might simply be a coincidence, but it was enough to get Mosley to investigative whether there was any "conspiracy" against him, and this latest tidbit to emerge might further those inquiries.

The News of the World's defence though is on three counts, each of them generally spurious: that there were Nazi elements at play; that Mosley's high-profile job meant he had a responsibility to behave himself and exposing him was in the public interest; and that there was an element of criminality, because in one scene Mosley bled after being spanked, and this act of violence was against the law. The Screws' claims about the first are looking threadbare on account of all four of the other women involved in the "sick orgy" testifying that there was no Nazi element, and although they were moments when the mentioning of the word "Ayran" suggested that this could have been possible, it's mostly come across as far from being cut and dry that that was what they were acting out. On the second, how many people can honestly say they knew of Mosley prior to the Screws outing him? Perhaps you might have heard his name, but if you have little interest in either the fascism which his father represented or in Formula 1, which is far more associated with Ecclestone than Mosley, then it seems doubtful. The last count also ought to be ignored, as Mosley was clearly consenting and had organised the orgy in the first place. For there to be a crime, there has to be a complaint made, and there hasn't. This does raise the spectre of the "Spanner case", as Dave Osler alludes to, but you'd hope that we've moved on the years since then. Even if we haven't, the S&M in the video is nowhere near on the scale of the Spanner case anyway.

Mosley's whole argument is built around the point that the orgy did not have a Nazi theme; but even if it did, who cares what a man and five consenting adults, even if they are being paid, decide to do in the privacy of their own S&M dungeon? While the connotations for Mosley are serious because of the history of his family, if a group of adults who enjoy what they're doing want to dress up in uniforms and torture each other ala Ilsa She-Wolf of the SS, it's of no business of anyone else's. The state, let alone tabloid newspapers, have no right whatsoever to pry into the bedroom of private individuals unless a complaint is made by one of the participants later. This is where the public interest and when the wider public have a right to know becomes difficult; in my view, only when the individual involved is both of high standing, and either because of his activities potentially not doing his job properly, or being outrageously hypocritical, does there become a public interest case for his sexual activities to be exposed.

The Blunkett case is both the most recent and probably one of the most controversial examples of where this potentially both falls and lies. It can be argued that when Blunkett was first exposed as having an affair with Kimberley Quinn, it was neither affecting his job nor did it expose him as being outrageously hypocritical. He made a few remarks and comments about families, as Home Secretaries are wont to do, but he hadn't professed to being either a family man or putting the family at the centre of his policies. At the time, both the Independent and Guardian didn't mention the exposure. However, when it later emerged that he was challenging Quinn over the paternity of her second child, and as later made clear by himself, suffering from depression as a result of the case, then it did enter the public interest, as it also would have done once it became clear he had been involved with the speeding up of Quinn's nanny's visa.

This understandably puts the press in a difficult position. Politicians generally, regardless of who are they are, are considered fair game, and none to my knowledge has challenged the allegations in a similar way to Mosley currently is. Also to be considered is just where the line between the rich and the famous and their relationship with the media ends; some undoubtedly forward details of their affairs to the press both to make money and to increase their profile, while stories of sex in the News of the Screws involving "ordinary" people are also ten a penny. Worth recalling is the case of Garry Flitcroft, a footballer who won a temporary injunction against the Sunday People, which planned to expose his extra marital affairs. There was clearly no public interest justification by the People, as this hardly added up to a "serious misdemanour", and most of those on first hearing the injunction presumed that it was a household name. When it eventually came out that it wasn't, most were thoroughly nonplussed and wondered what all the fuss had been about. Much the same was when Ulrika Johnsson made her allegations about being raped public; when Matthew Wright inadvertently blurted out that it was John Leslie most thought she was talking about, hardly anyone knew who he was.

The complaint, especially from the tabloid media, is that what we might end up with is a judicially decided, through the precedents set by various rulings, privacy law. The ostensible objection to this is that parliament is the only place where such a law should be debated and passed, but this ignores the fact that the power of the press, especially the Daily Mail and News Corporation, behind the Sun/NotW/Times etc is such that no such law would ever get past even the suggestion stage. We saw what happened recently over the incredibly mild proposals put forward by the Information Commissioner for journalists caught using private detectives to spy on individuals to face the potential of being jailed; the Mail roared, the Sun howled and the Telegraph bleated, all making the "investigative journalism" defence, and the government backed down.

The paradox is that while the media is all powerful, so are the ridiculous libel laws, which are currently enabling foreign individuals accused of terrorist financing to pulp books which make such allegations against them, even if they've never technically been sold here. The libel laws are however open only to the rich, who can afford the lawyer fees, as legal aid isn't provided in libel cases. The obvious solution would be to change the stifling libel laws, while also setting up a privacy law, but as argued above, this simply isn't going to happen. We're caught potentially in the worst of all worlds: with a privacy law which protects the rich and the powerful but not the likes of those who had their lives ruined by Mazher Mahmood, and with libel laws which protect the rich and the powerful but not those who find themselves viciously attacked for some alleged misdemanour by the tabloids. The thing is that if this happens, the tabloids will have no one to blame but themselves. For years they've thought nothing of stalking celebrities, considered fair game, regardless of the potential consequences, taking photographs of them on the beach, asking dubious questions about their health or whether they're pregnant, with them able to pay the occasional libel damage due to their wealth. At the other end of the scale they accuse the most vulnerable in society like Colin Stagg of being murderers, perform hatchet jobs on anyone who crosses them as a public service, and think nothing of pontificating on crime and demanding tough sentences for everything under the sun, all while breaking the law themselves by spying on royals or just anyone they think they can get an eventual story about. If Sir Smacks Mosley brings to end such an era, who except the pitiful editors and hacks themselves will complain?

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I'll always remember the Sun's headline with the Flitcroft case

"It's Garry Flitcroft!

[Small letters] He plays for Blackburn Rovers"

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