Mosley legal bid 'imperils investigative journalism'

As former FIA President Max Mosley takes to the stand in the European Court of Human Rights today, media experts warn that victory for the Englishman in his bid to amend the UK's law on privacy could have far-reaching implications

If successful, Max Mosley's bid to change the UK law on privacy could result in 'a radically different press...with a lot of the colour taken away' and 'papers folding because they can't afford the legal costs' and 'would imperil investigative journalism', it has been warned - as D-day looms in the European Court of Human Rights.

Just under three years ago, the then FIA President found himself at the centre of a sensationalist tabloid sex scandal following a front page expos? published by Sunday red-top the News of the World detailing his lurid liaisons with prostitutes in a so-called 'torture dungeon' in London. Mosley successfully sued the newspaper for a record ?60,000 in damages after the High Court ruled that his right to privacy had been violated.

"Tabloid revelations can cause great pain, even suicide," he wrote on the Guardian website. "As things stand, the law is ineffective. It cannot prevent even the most outrageously illegal invasions of privacy by the tabloids. If they feel like it, they can ruin lives with impunity. The only answer is to compel a newspaper to inform you if it intends to publish your private information."

And that is precisely what Mosley is now endeavouring to enforce. The Englishman will appear before a panel of judges in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg today, and will argue that Britain's celebrity privacy laws should be reformed by the Government so that editors are legally obliged to notify public figures of stories they intend to publish about them before they appear, in an effort to bring an end to what he describes as tabloid 'ambushes'.

Mosley will campaign for 'prior notification', which would enable the subject of the story to seek a court injunction to delay the article or prevent it from seeing the light of day full-stop - potentially leaving the final say in whether or not it is justified to invade a person's privacy in the hands of a judge rather than a newspaper editor.

"The first Max knew about the News of the World story was on the morning of 30 March, 2008, the same time as 15 per cent of the adult population of the UK were also reading it," revealed Dominic Crossley, a partner at law firm Collyer Bristow who are representing Mosley. "The decision not to notify the subjects of stories like this is a technique used by tabloid editors in extreme cases when the article is clearly going to be unlawful - they take a decision which renders privacy rights entirely futile."

The case being tabled by Mosley's lawyers is that the only way to effectively quash such unethical practice is to amend the law, since no financial compensation can ever atone for such a flagrant loss of privacy - but whilst a judgement in the 70-year-old's favour could well sound the death knell for so-called 'kiss-and-tell' stories, many fear it could also have much farther-reaching implications in striking a hefty blow to serious investigative journalism, too, by removing the media's accepted right to freedom of speech.

"[Mosley] is a wealthy international public figure with a penchant for satisfying sexual desires by beating women and being beaten by them," mused Geoffrey Robertson QC, representing media organisations that are robustly contesting the case. "He pays prostitutes to engage with him in mildly sadomasochistic orgies, and campaigns for a law that will enable the truth about such 'private' conduct to remain secret. The vast scope of the new law which is contended so vague as to be unworkable."

"There will be a radically different press if he is successful, with a lot of the colour taken away," added Caroline Kean from law firm Wiggin - which has represented some of the country's foremost publishers - speaking to Press Gazette. "We would see 'papers folding because they can't afford the legal costs. I hate to say it, but it would imperil investigative journalism."

The matter highlights the uneasy relationship between Articles 8 and 10 of the Human Rights Act, protecting respectively the right to privacy and that to freedom of expression. Last year, the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in the House of Commons evaluated Mosley's case for a report on press and privacy - concluding that the 'public interest' argument tendered by the News of the World's editor was 'wholly unpersuasive', even if the 'public was interested in it'. The committee rejected, however, the notion that the law on privacy should be altered.

A ruling from the European Court of Human Rights is not expected for a number of months.

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