Painful lessons (but 60,000 smackers won’t even make NoW wince)

25 July 2008 – In his ruling against the News of the World in the privacy case brought by Max Mosley, President of Formula One’s governing body the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, Mr Justice Eady has done the public some unexpected favours.

Most people can live without revelations about sordid sex-dens – which is no doubt why most people don’t buy the NoW – so the judge’s ruling that pictures of sexual acts conducted between consenting adults should, for the most part, remain private is to be welcomed.

“The law is concerned to prevent the violation of a citizen’s dignity and self-esteem,” he said, adding that “the nature and scale of the distress caused is in large measure due to the clandestine filming and the pictures acquired as a result”.

This might save us all from some of the more prurient material that masquerades as news. The NoW’s fearless Chief Reporter Neville Thurlbeck, who produced the offending ‘sick Nazi orgy’ story, should find some comfort in these words.  He could have relied upon them ten years ago when he famously ‘took off his clothes and stayed’ while conducting a sting against a couple who ran a naturist bed and breakfast. When they posted images of the naked reporter to his wife and on the internet, he could only protect his private parts by getting his bosses to issue lawyers’ letters, send two senior executives to remonstrate with the couple, and get the website taken down.

Although the methods used by the News of the World to obtain salacious stories were not on trial in the Mosley case, the public interest best served by the result was the unveiling of the dubious tactics employed both in obtaining the story and defending its publication.

Unable to demonstrate conclusively to the court the truth of its central ‘Nazi’ allegation the NoW shifted its ground, and claimed that the activities in Mosely’s basement flat near Euston might be in breach of the law. They had no luck with that either.

The NoW halved the price it was prepared to pay for the pictorial ‘evidence’ of the orgy, telling the court it ‘likes to negotiate downwards when in a strong bargaining position’. Some might take that to mean the images did not match the rhetoric.

What are the facts? On 13 March an MI5 officer, whose wife is a dominatrix, offered the NoW salacious details of Mosley’s sex life and negotiated a £25,000 fee on her behalf. Later, while fitting a hidden camera into her (non-Nazi) uniform Neville Thurlbeck tells her how best to capture pictures of Mosley throwing Nazi salutes.

Meanwhile Mosley is warned by well-connected Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone and former police chief Lord Stevens that he is under surveillance. According to The Independent (23/7/08) this is related to the high octane world of Formula One politics, where Mosley had been ruffling feathers. Undeterred Mosley, who admits to spending three times the national average wage on sado-masochistic sex each year, engages in a session with five women. Their antics are caught on the NoW camera.

The NoW splashes an ‘Exclusive’ across its 30 March front page, devotes two more pages to prurient details and pictures and makes available video footage on its website as a result of which, it claims, “traffic …increased by 600%”.

To get a follow-up story Thurlbeck offers two of the other women at the ‘orgy’ anonymity and “a substantial sum of money” for an exclusive interview. Then he sends them pictures and warns that his paper plans to reveal their identities, and suggests £8,000 for an interview “with no name, no ID and pixilated face”.

Thurlbeck and his editor Colin Myler failed to acknowledge the Judges’ entirely reasonable view that this was tantamount to blackmail. Yet this technique is often used to elicit ‘kiss and tell’ stories. Tabloids get their headlines, and the women are written off as ‘bimbos’. Hardly brave investigations let alone the responsible journalism we are now told to expect from national newspapers.

Colin Myler took over at the NoW in 2006 when his predecessor Andy Coulson resigned over the jailing of Royal reporter Clive Goodman for illegally intercepting phone calls.

Myler had quit as editor of the Sunday Mirror in 2003 after causing the collapse of a criminal trial by printing a prejudicial article. A decade earlier he controversially ran pictures from a camera planted in Princess Diana’s gym.

His xenophobic reaction to the Mosley verdict is telling. “Our press is less free today after another judgment based on privacy laws emanating from Europe,” he claimed.

“How those very general laws should work in practice has never been debated in the UK parliament. English judges are left to apply those laws to individual cases here using guidance from judges in Strasbourg who are unfriendly to freedom of expression.”

He conveniently forgets that
* freedom of expression usually wins out over privacy claims in the Strasbourg court;
* this case was brought under the UK Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998 during the parliamentary debates on which the importance of press self-regulation was recognised – newspapers only face court action if they had failed to comply with the Editors’ Code policed by the Press Complaints Commission;
* the HRA is based on the European Convention on Human Rights which was devised by the UK and imposed on Europe after World War 2.

Myler also chose to ignore the Judge’s statement that his was not a “landmark” decision. “It is simply the application to rather unusual facts of recently developed but established principles. (It cannot) seriously be suggested that the case is likely to inhibit serious investigative journalism into crime or wrong doing, where the public interest in more genuinely engaged.”

Now their cover is blown yet again, perhaps the News of the World will do us all a favour and concentrate on really important investigations. Surely there are more important issues at stake in the world of Formula One than the state of Max Mosley’s backside.

Mike Jempson
Director, MediaWise

(Bulletin No 150)

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