Max Mosley: Tabloids have same attitude to the law “as a bunch of feral muggers”

Max Mosley writes exclusively for Left Foot Forward on the importance of privacy why the tabloid press need to be reined in, following his recent court case.

By Max Mosley

A person’s privacy is one of his most precious possessions. It’s a basic human right. To take it and use it to sell newspapers is theft, pure and simple. It’s worse than having your money stolen because privacy, once destroyed, can never be replaced.

Of course there are circumstances in which someone can take your money. The same applies to privacy. But the law tries to be clear what these circumstances are.

The problem is that the tabloid press have the same attitude to the law as a bunch of feral muggers: if you can get away with it, it’s OK.

UK law is quite rational. It balances an individual’s right to privacy against the public’s right to know. If the information is something the public need to know, the right to privacy will take second place. But if the information is mere gossip or salacious tittle tattle, it can usually be kept private. Sometimes the balance can be difficult but that is what judges are for. Difficult decisions are what they do.

So if you know the newspaper is going to reveal private information, you can go to a judge and ask him to issue a temporary order to stop them until trial. But it’s quite difficult. He will only do this if you can convince him you are likely to win the trial. The idea that you can just “take out” an injunction, as if buying it at the post office, is nonsense.

The big problem comes if you don’t know. Then, a tabloid can ambush you. The first you hear of the story is when it appears in the newspaper. This is what happened to me. And then you have no remedy for even the most outrageous breach of privacy. All the courts will give you is a large bill and more publicity.

The reason is that if you sue after the story is out, the damages and costs which the newspaper will be ordered to pay will be less than the bill from your lawyers. In my case, record damages of £60,000 plus the £420,000 paid by the newspaper were still £30,000 short of the £510,000 bill from my lawyers.

No rational person would call that a remedy. And on top of such manifest injustice, once the private information has been published, no power on earth can make it private again. So the only just and fair solution is for a judge to look at the information before it is published and decide if the public interest requires it to become known. But this can only happen if the victim knows and alerts the judge.

That’s why I went to Strasbourg. I wanted a ruling that newspapers should be compelled to notify those whose privacy they intend to invade. At least then, the victim could ask a judge to decide if his privacy should be protected. The phone-hacking scandal shows that the tabloids routinely employ criminals. It is utterly naïve to trust them, rather than judges, with our privacy.

Are injunctions only for the rich? No, but cost is a deterrent. Litigation in general is far too expensive, a problem which requires urgent attention. Cost deprives many people of access to justice. This diminishes the rule of law. But it’s not a reason for barring access to the courts altogether.

Will Twitter destroy injunctions? No. There is so much misinformation on Twitter that the truth will become increasingly difficult to unearth. Any footballer anonymously named can disappear into the crowd by himself anonymously naming a few dozen other footballers. Twitter as an injunction wrecker is a five-minute wonder.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.