Former Formula One boss Max Mosley goes to the European Court today at the culmination of a two-and-a-half-year legal battle to exact revenge on the News of the World – and Britain’s tabloid journalism culture – after it publicly humiliated him by publishing details of his sex sessions with five paid dominatrices.
Mosley’s argument is at face value a compelling one. But if he wins over the European Court, its decision – which would be binding on UK law – would end British journalism’s proud tradition of “publish and be damned” and result in a system of judicial censorship being imposed on us.
Mosley is angry that he first found out that the News of the World had secretly filmed his sexual activities in the privacy of a Chelsea flat when details where splashed across its front page – and video published online – on 31 March 2008.
The reason why Mosley is taking this issue to the European Court is a simple one, as he explained at a City University debate in October:
“When I sued the News of the World I was awarded £60,000 damages and £420,000 costs. My actual solicitor’s bill was £510,000. So the net result was I got a bill for £30,000 and all the private information repeated again in court over a period of two weeks.
“It’s like going to court because somebody broke your leg and getting the other leg broken and a big bill.”
He wants British journalists to be forced to contact the people concerned before they publish information which could breach their privacy.
In Mosley’s case, this could have enabled him to obtain an injunction before publication and stop the whole business right at the start.
Such a system would all but rule out local newspapers and smaller periodicals and websites publishing private information in the public interest. Only heavyweight news organisations would be able to afford the tens of thousands in barristers fees, and a day out of the office in the High Court, to argue the case in favour of publication.
And with budgets across the board as tight as they are, even well-resourced news organisations would have to be extremely choosy about what privacy stories they opted to publish. The chances are that only the most salacious and sensational stories would be worth arguing over – while less grabby, but perhaps more worthwhile, fare would be considered not worth the expense.
But most importantly, we live in a country with freedom of speech and a free press.
Editors spend their lives trying to to second guess what their readers – the people – want to find out about and base their publishing decisions largely on that.
If Mosley wins the argument today (note that a decision is not expected for some months), editors will be forced to hand over their proof pages to judges ensconced in London’s High Court to wield the red pen over what can and cannot appear in print.