• Editorial

Privacy versus a free press

Martin Williamson January 11, 2011
Max Mosley and friends © Getty Images
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In 2007 Max Mosley was understandably embarrassed when details of his cavorting with prostitutes was splashed all over the Sunday papers. He sued the News of the World and won but few would dispute that irreversible damage had been done to his reputation.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Eady said Mosley had a "reasonable expectation of privacy" in relation to his sexual activities no matter how "unconventional" and said Mosley's life had been "ruined". That was not too far from the truth as his position as FIA president, already under fire, became all but untenable after the story broke.

Since then, Mosley has made public his mission to clamp down on what newspapers are allowed to publish about people's private lives. If he succeeds at the European Court it will be a huge blow to the freedom of information. He wants legislation forcing newspapers to inform their "victims" in advance, with the obvious result those targeted can rush to their lawyers and fire off injunctions.

At stake is the right for newspapers to report, not salacious title-tattle about the private lives of so-called celebrities so much as undertake investigative journalism.

The explosion in the use of injunction and super injunctions (which ban the reporting that an injunction has been obtained) in the UK has been a subject of growing concern. They have increasingly started to be used by celebrities to protect their reputations (often closely linked to their own marketability) as well as foreign dictators to suppress critical reporting and corporations to crush negative media. Only the existence of the internet, as well as the defiance of Private Eye, has exposed the activities of some of those involved.

Celebrities have a clear choice. If they are not prepared to live with what they do and think it might embarrass them, then they shouldn't do it

It has become, as one observer noted, more about the rich being able to buy silence and in so doing in effect behave in a way which is at complete odds to the public image they look to give. It's almost a throwback to the pre-war era when newspapers were in effect barred - in those days by a moral code rather than a court - from writing about King Edward VIII's affair with the divorced Wallace Simpson.

Only a minority of those likely to benefit from Mosley's campaign are innocent victims. Like Mosley, most have behaved in a way which was likely to harm their image and started worrying about the consequences when the press got involved.

The balance has swung too far towards stifling of free speech. If Mosley persuades the European Court to impose further restrictions then it will further damage our claims to have a free and open media.

After all, celebrities have a clear choice. If they are not prepared to live with what they do and think it might embarrass them, then they shouldn't do it. That's the best way of all to protect a reputation.

Martin Williamson is managing editor of digital media ESPN EMEA

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Martin Williamson is managing editor of digital media ESPN EMEA Martin Williamson, who grew up in the era of James Hunt, Niki Lauda and sideburns, became managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group in 2007 after spells with Sky Sports, Sportal and Cricinfo