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Mosley warns newspaper editors: It's not finished yet!

13 May 2011

Max Mosley has refused to take Tuesday's privacy ruling lying down, warning newspaper editors that 'it's not finished yet' and arguing that 'there's a gap in the law which should have been closed' – and 'one day' it may be.

Having taken his case for stronger UK and European privacy laws all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in an effort to bring about a change that would have legally required newspapers to forewarn the subjects of their stories of what they were about to publish, Mosley's challenge was dismissed on the grounds that such an overhaul would have stifled the media's 'right of freedom of expression' [see separate story – click here].

Three years ago, Sunday red-top the News of the World published a salacious front page exposé detailing the then FIA President's sado-masochistic sex sessions with five prostitutes in an underground London apartment – for which he was awarded £60,000 in damages by London's High Court, which deemed that there was no justification for such a flagrant and unwarranted invasion of his privacy.

Whilst recognising that the private lives of famous people have become 'a highly lucrative commodity' in the media – 'generally for the purposes of entertainment rather than education' – the European Court of Human Rights, however, concluded that 'the European Convention on Human Rights does not require media to give prior notice of intended publications to those who feature in them'.

The judgement added that 'the current UK system fully corresponds to the resolutions of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on media and privacy' – albeit seeking to stress the very clear line between matters that are in the public interest and those that are merely of interest to the public.

Reasoning that 'any pre-notification requirement would only be as strong [a deterrent] as the sanctions imposed for failing to observe it', the court added that just such an amendment to the legislation would have risked straying into the realms of censorship and may have engendered 'a chilling effect on journalism which would be felt in the spheres of political and investigative reporting' – areas that currently benefit from 'a high level of protection under the [Human Rights] Convention'.

In January's High Court hearing into Mosley's case, the British Government had stressed that the current regulations strike a good balance between the rights to 'private life' and 'freedom of expression' – as guaranteed respectively under Articles 8 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights – and following this week's ruling, the Ministry of Justice professed itself satisfied that sense had prevailed.

“We are pleased with the judgement in this case and believe the court has made the right decision,” a spokesman for the department is quoted as having said by the Daily Mail. “The Government recognises the importance of finding the right balance between individual rights to privacy on the one hand, with rights to freedom of expression and transparency of official information on the other.”

“The issue at stake here was not the sex lives of celebrities,” added Index on Censorship chief executive John Kampfner. “Serious investigative journalism would have suffered. We are pleased that the court acknowledged that Mr. Mosley's move would have inflicted a significant chilling effect on the media.”

Whilst stopping short of confirming that he intends to appeal the European Court's decision, Mosley, perhaps unsurprisingly, disagrees with those assessments – and insists examples such as his own are altogether more serious than the ongoing debate over whether super-injunctions should protect public figures from the media glare, prompted by the unregulated dissemination of information via the social-networking medium of Twitter.

“As far as Twitter's concerned, it's just that – Twitter – it's one step up from the pub,” the Englishman told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. “I think the Twitter thing is just a temporary bit of hysteria in an attempt to try and get opposition to injunctions which shouldn't really happen. It's a very small number of people.

“That is completely different to a serious publication in a major national newspaper. Once they have published it, they can't unpublish it – they can't take it out of the public mind. You only need the freedom of the press when it's something that the public need to know; the story of people's sexual escapades...they are not matters of public interest. This is about whether newspapers should have the right to publicise very private aspects of people's lives which there's no public interest in at all – it's just purely for titillation and to sell newspapers.

“Worse than that, under the English legal system, if you sue, once the thing's out, you recover damages, you get your costs awarded, if you win – but the costs and damages are less than the bill from your solicitor, so you get the whole publicity repeated again in open court, on top of which you get a very large bill. That's not a remedy, and there should be a remedy under the Human Rights Act. I think it's a little bit sad, because there's a gap in the law which should have been closed – that is where the newspapers ambush people. It hasn't been closed, but maybe it will be one day. It's not finished yet.”


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