Are Britain's rambunctious tabloids about to have their wings clipped? A London High Court ruling that a leading national newspaper breached the right to privacy of Max Mosley by publishing images of the Formula One boss at a sadomasochistic orgy has left journalists unsettled about the implications for their work.
Mosley, the 68-year-old president of the International Automobile Federation, won £60,000 ($120,000) in damages from the tabloid News of the World for a report about Mosley's sex session with five prostitutes. One of the women secretly filmed the bondage and caning encounter, which featured some of the participants in prison-style uniforms and was said by the newspaper to have a Nazi theme. However, the High Court judge ruled that there was "no public interest or other justification" for the publication of the pictures and the story, and he also dismissed the paper's suggestion that there were Nazi overtones to the session. Mosley, the son of fascist pro-Hitler British politician Oswald Mosley, welcomed the ruling as proof that his sexual behavior is a private matter. "I hope that my case will help deter newspapers in the U.K. from pursuing this type of invasive and salacious journalism," he said.
The impact on the downmarket British tabs remains to be seen. However, the decision underscored the fact that Britain, which has no formal privacy laws, is now subject to the more rigorous privacy protections in the European Convention on Human Rights. NEWSWEEK's William Underhill talked in London to Stephen Rigley, the news editor of the Sunday Express—a mass-market rival of the News of the World—about the likely effects of the Mosley decision.
NEWSWEEK: Were you surprised by the outcome of the trial?
Stephen Rigley: My own opinion was it always looked bleak for the News of the World after its key witness failed to turn up. But in the end I wasn't so much surprised as saddened.
Why do you say saddened?
This is a black day for the freedom of the press in Britain. The serious part is the implications of the decision in the future. We are talking about the introduction of a privacy law by the back door.
Will the outcome of the case actually change how you cover stories in the Sunday Express?
We are not quite in the same kiss-and-tell market as the News of the World, but it has implications for us all. There will be concern in the whole of Fleet Street. Whatever the judge may have said in court about the case not setting a precedent, it could in effect put a block on their investigations into sex or other scandals.
So you think it will actually prevent journalists on other papers from exploring similar stories?
At the more salacious end of the industry they will probably have to change. But we will have to wait and see what happens when the next privacy case comes up.
Do you mean that the decision will encourage others to bring similar actions?
Undoubtedly. I expect there are others who are thinking of it already.
Still, there must have been some newspaper readers who admired Mosley for taking a stand against media intrusion?
There is always going to be an argument for saying that what he got up to behind closed doors was his own business. But he is also the head of a multi-million-pound international business, and he's therefore a public figure.