Max Mosley’s war for privacy is now a nation’s
A London-based Sunday tabloid newspaper, the News of the World, met an ignominious demise on 7 July, sacrificed by the Murdoch family in a vain attempt to contain the phone-hacking scandal that was engulfing the historic title. Violations of privacy by the News of the World were not, however, limited to the criminal activity of hacking into the population’s telephone voicemail, just as such criminal activities were not limited to the News of the World. That story is still unfolding.1
There is another story quietly running parallel to the daily headlines, one that began with a trademark NotW exposé more than three years ago and that many players in the UK media and associated culture would like to vanish as swiftly and completely as the News of the World vanished. It is the story of one of the News of the World’s most outrageous assaults on personal life, and what it means in the debate on freedom of expression, privacy and press regulation in the United Kingdom. This debate has gained a sense of great urgency as, in a turning of the tables, the manifold illegal
invasions of privacy committed by the tabloid press in particular have been exposed to the world.
Shock! Horror! Moral outrage!
On 30 March 2008, the News of the World ran headlines announcing an exposé allegedly as scandalous as anything its garish, red-bannered masthead had ever promised to deliver. Printed in massive capitals on approximately three million front pages were these words: F1 BOSS MAX MOSLEY HAS SICK NAZI ORGY WITH 5 HOOKERS; the sub-head to the story was “Son of Hitler-loving fascist in sex shame”.2
Max Mosley was, at the time, the sixty-seven-year-old president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), the governing body of international motor sports including Formula One.
To some extent, this made Mosley a public figure, although clearly of a much lower profile than the gladiators of the circuit, many of whom, such as Ayrton Senna and Michael
Schumacher, have become all but international household names. Likewise, and unlike Mosley, at least in the United Kingdom, Formula One’s leading entrepreneur, Bernie Ecclestone, was and still is often in the news as a result of routine reporting on the lucrative sport. In Mosley’s own words, in evidence presented in March 2009 to a UK parliamentary committee investigating press standards, privacy and libel, although “quite significant in certain other countries” because of his position in international motor sport, he was “not a significant figure in England”, and that he was “well known in motor racing circles [but] out of that...was not really known”.3
What made Mosley of interest to the News of the World was his hitherto very private and closely guarded passion for bondage, domination and sadomasochism (BDSM) – especially in variations of role-playing scenarios – and the fact that his father, Sir Oswald Mosley, was the founder of the British Union of Fascists in 1932. With these ingredients for a monumental, life-
crushing scoop literally falling into its hands, the Sunday red-top calculated on a profitable exposé; and thus did it unleash upon an unsuspecting Mosley an assault on an individual’s private life and personality on a scale rarely undertaken even by the News of the World’s salacious tradition.
To mount its exposé, the tabloid employed methods that were literally voyeuristic in a way it would denounce in morally charged terms should a member of the public be apprehended and prosecuted for engaging in similar practices: one of the professional dominatrices involved in a private London BDSM session on 28 March 2008 sold her services twice, once to Mosley, and again to the News of the World to secretly record the session for the newspaper’s use. Not only did the Sunday tabloid flaunt and mock the most intimate aspects of Mosley’s life on the front page of its nationally distributed print edition two days later,
/ Mosley instantly realised his life had irrevocably changed /
but it did so also with a global audience via its website in the form of still images and video, the latter being viewed more than 1.4 million times in the two-day period of 30–31 March.4 Media all over the world picked up the story, with some publications striving to replicate the sensationalism of the original source by augmenting their reports with imagery purchased from the News of the World.
Mosley has described how reading