Page last updated at 01:06 GMT, Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Max Mosley's battle for privacy

Linda Pressly
Producer, BBC Radio 4: Law in Action

Max Mosley

Max Mosley - the President of the FIA, the body that governs Formula 1 - is on a mission to fundamentally transform privacy laws in the UK.

Mr Mosley is the son of the late Sir Oswald Mosley the founder of the British Union of Fascists.

Last July, he won a legal action against the News of the World newspaper over claims he took part in an orgy that had Nazi overtones.

The court found no evidence of a Nazi theme, and ruled that his privacy had been breached. He was awarded 60,000 in damages.

I think most people recognise there are some human activities that people prefer to do in private
Max Mosley

His experiences in the High Court have turned him into a champion for privacy law reform and he spoke candidly to Radio 4's Law in Action programme about his campaign.

"I think most people recognise there are some human activities that people prefer to do in private" he says.

"With sex, it would in my opinion be very, very rare that the public have any need-to-know basis for their interest whatsoever."

Following Mr Mosley's triumph in the High Court, he is pursuing his case across Europe, and wants to force the UK parliament to introduce privacy legislation that will set out journalists' responsibilities.

Bad news for journalists

The editor of Private Eye, Ian Hislop, says this is bad news for journalism.

Ian Hislop
Ian Hislop believes the changes proposed are bad news for the press
"The problem with Mosley's case is he would like to make a general principle out of what happened to him.

"Now what happened to him was the law - as everyone expected - supported him. He won. He now wants to change the law and make it more punitive.

"Bad law is always advanced by a case like Mosley's that seem on the surface to have some merit, and is then extended to people who don't have any merit, and want to cover up what they are doing."

Max Mosley believes we have absolutely no right to know about certain types of activity that take place in private - including most sexual activity - unless the activity is relevant to a person's public work.

"So if we have a transvestite who runs a huge company, and he goes to a little club in the evening with other transvestites and they all do that together, and he does nothing of that in the headquarters of his company, to me that's irrelevant to his job" reasons Mr Mosley.

"Where it gets more difficult is if somebody puts forward a view which is completely inconsistent with his private behaviour, and which is at the same time relevant to his public persona."

But Ian Hislop does not accept the principle that an individual's sex life is off-limits to the press.

"I don't think we're yet at the point where we have a Mosley-style consensus that all forms of sexual activity, including paid prostitution, are acceptable behaviour in your private life.

"I think a lot of actions head into a grey area, where they help you assess character in those who are either in public office or who have official duties to perform.

"I think Max Mosley is extrapolating from one messy case into a much more absolute and much more dangerous privacy law."

Further court action

Across Europe Max Mosley is taking criminal cases against journalists who published the News of the World story.

"It's a matter now for the public prosecutor in Berlin, and a matter for the courts," he says about the case in Germany.

"But theoretically it's possible journalists could go to jail. And in France, it's theoretically possible the editor and the chief reporter of the News of the World could go to prison."

Max Mosley speaks to Law in Action on BBC Radio 4
Listen live on Tuesday, 17 February at 16.00 GMT
Subscribe to the podcast or catch up on the BBC iPlayer
Apart from the cases Max Mosley is pursuing in individual European countries, he is also taking a case to the European Court of Human Rights.

He is asking the court in Strasbourg to rule on 'prior notification'.

This would mean that in a case like Mr Mosley's journalists would be obliged to approach the subject of any investigation ahead of publication, and inform them of the details of any allegations against them.

The person who is the subject of the story would then be able to apply for an injunction to stop publication if a judge ruled the allegations represented an infringement of privacy.

If the European court rules in favour of Mr Mosley, under international law the British government will be obliged to implement the ruling here.

This could mean legislation in parliament and it would represent a seismic shift in the law in the UK, and it isn't one Ian Hislop supports.

Silencing the press

A de facto law on privacy already exists as a result of a catalogue of cases including those of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, Naomi Campbell, and now Max Mosley.

If you want to reveal something that someone doesn't want you to, they now no longer claim libel, they just say, this is privacy
Ian Hislop
And Ian Hislop says the law is already preventing publications like his from publishing stories.

"If you want to reveal something that someone doesn't want you to, they now no longer claim libel, they just say, this is privacy, and we'll have an injunction please.

"Then not only will we have the injunction, but we'll have another injunction that says you can't mention the original injunction.

"And if you try to challenge that, then we'll appeal and you will never get this story into the public arena."

Ian Hislop says this happens on a regular basis with the stories he seeks to publish in Private Eye.

"But obviously I can't tell you anything because of this privacy law.

"They get wind of the fact you want to write a story about them because if you put the facts to them - something Mr Mosley's very keen on, and wants to imprison us all if we don't - they then say, oh I'll have an injunction on the grounds of privacy.

"That's the end of the story."

However, Max Mosley believes most journalists have nothing to fear from a change to the law that would bring in 'prior notification'.

"Responsible journalists invariably put the case to the person they are accusing.

"What I'm saying is that apart from being the very basic duty of a proper journalist, it should now be a legal obligation, because unfortunately there are journalists who don't observe this convention.

"At the moment you have a tabloid 'judge' taking the decision about whether he's going to ruin someone's life, and I don't think he should be allowed to."

Listen to the full report on Radio 4's Law in Action on Tuesday, 17 February at 16.00 GMT. Alternatively, download the podcast or log on to the BBC iPlayer.

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