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:: Friday, July 25, 2008 ::

Public Interest vs the Right to Privacy

Interesting responses from the papers to the Max Mosley vs the News of the World case. For those who don't know, the News of the World [NotW], a UK gutter-press tabloid fond of kiss and tell stories, secretly filmed and published stories about F1 boss Mosley, accusing him of partaking in an orgy with six prostitutes that had Nazi overtones.

Mosley claimed for libel, on the grounds there weren't any Nazi overtones. He didn't deny any of the rest of it, that was his own private business. He won a record £60k damages.

The Guardian editorial this morning sums up the case:

Judges and journalists might disapprove of all sorts of unconventional sexual behaviour but - so long as it was between consenting adults in private - it is not the business of the state, the courts or the media to intrude. "It is not," said Eady, "for journalists to undermine human rights, or for judges to refuse to enforce them, merely on grounds of taste or moral disapproval."

In a great piece on Channel 4 news [skip 14min into this video] last night the NotW's legal expert was interviewed about how the paper felt the case had gone. They felt that the ruling had severe implications for freedom of speech and maintained that knowing what sexual acts a person in power gets up to in their own time, between consenting adults, is in the public interest, whilst glossing over the fact that they embellished the story to make it sell better. At the end of the interview John Snow challenges him to name a previous story that may no-longer be publishable because of this ruling, although he dodged the question it is a very good one.

Most of the press are quick to the defensive, The Telegraph reporting Judge has hampered freedom of expression, for example. Then, in classic right wing press tradition, they go on to blame the Human Rights Act in just the same was the NotW blamed Europe (see video).

Why has Human Rights become a dirty word? The press hate it. This irritates me every time I see an example of it, which is almost daily. They are convinced it has done nothing but harm to their right to print whatever they like and acting as self-appointed judge and jury themselves. Even the Guardian editorial, above, spins the case for using the Press Complaints Commission rather than the courts. True, this may be easier in many cases, but I can't see the PCC handing out landmark rulings and record compensation.

The Times, on the other hand, spins a conspiracy theory about missing evidence: Max Mosley orgies and missing emails.

The New York Times, bless them, completely misses the point by putting the wrong word in inverted commas in their headline: British Tabloid Loses Suit Over Nazi ‘Orgy’ Article.

The Irish Times has the sense to point out Mosley ruling does not appear to threaten public interest defence.

"The implication of yesterday's judgment by Mr Justice Eady," The Independent reminds us, "is that people who have sexual habits others might find bizarre or unpalatable have the same right to privacy as anyone else." And that's a very good thing.

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