Millionaire Tory MP Zac Goldsmith has defended taking out a super-injunction after private emails were hacked and passed to newspapers.
The Richmond Park MP said the affair cost him an “absolute fortune”, and called for reform to make it possible for the less wealthy to protect their privacy.
But he accepted Parliament was unlikely to act – judging that most MPs were too scared of the consequences of taking on the press.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s PM programme, which is conducting an inquiry into the issue of privacy, Goldsmith explained the circumstances under which he, his then wife Sheherazade and his sister Jemima Khan obtained a super-injunction in 2008. The order was downgraded to a standard injunction earlier this year, allowing its existence to be made public.
He said his case was “probably the best example of why a super-injunction has merit”.
“I discovered late at night that hundreds of emails had been accessed illegally from my wife’s – my now ex-wife’s – email account and also from my sister’s email account,” he explained.
“I had no idea which emails had been accessed. I simply know that they had been sent to editors of newspapers around the country, purporting to come from me and/or my ex-wife, which was not the case.
“We didn’t know who had done this or why it was being done and I sought very quickly to close down any possibility that these emails would be published, because they were clearly illegally accessed.
“There was no great revelation in any of them, they were simply private emails and discussions and exchanges between members of a family.”
He added: “Initially we sought and obtained a super-injunction, which prevented any discussion of this in the coming weeks and months.
“When we eventually discovered who it was that had hacked the emails – someone we understood, and we still believe, suffers from quite serious mental health issues – we applied to have part of the super-injunction lifted – the part applying to myself and my sister, which is why we can talk about it now, but not the part applying to the hacker.”
Goldsmith said that the revelation of the contents of the emails would have been “very uncomfortable” at a time when he was seeking election to Parliament, because of the revelation of “all kinds of tittle-tattle which I would have been better off without”.
Goldsmith said it was only his wealth – inherited from his father Sir James Goldsmith – which allowed him to keep a lid on the disclosures.
“The whole episode cost an absolute fortune, including finding out who it was had engaged in the hacking,” he said.
“Before the judgment was made, I employed a media expert to try to ensure that the more aggressive tabloids recognised that publishing private emails was wrong and I would challenge it.
“I was putting out a number of different fires at the same time. If I survived only on the MP’s salary I receive, I wouldn’t have been able to engage in a fraction of the activities I engaged in.
“I did the right thing, but I wouldn’t have been able to do the right thing had I been an ordinary Conservative Party candidate.”
Goldsmith called for “an even playing field for both sides” in privacy disputes, including a cap on the costs of legal action. And he said that Parliament needed to produce new guidelines to guide the courts on the issue of privacy.
But he said he held out little hope of his fellow MPs getting behind significant change.
“On the surface there is definitely an appetite for a debate on this issue,” said Mr Goldsmith.
But he added: “The trouble with politicians is that they absolutely depend on the newspapers to get to the people on whom they depend for votes. It is very hard to speak to all your electors and the newspapers provide a very handy shortcut.
“If we were to take this issue seriously, we would have to accept that the newspapers have behaved on many, many occasions with huge irresponsibility, and that requires us to point the finger at those newspapers.
“That is something that politicians are reluctant to do for obvious reasons.
“I hope there will be a debate. I hope it will be a robust and honest debate. I suspect that you will find that the people who are most critical of the newspapers are those at the end of their careers who probably won’t seek re-election next time. That is a sad reflection on Parliament, but nonetheless probably true.”