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How Max Mosley helped tame the tabloids

The privacy campaigner, who has died at the age of 81, succeeded in changing the media landscape.

By Dominic Ponsford

Goodbye Max Mosley, the motorsport executive who helped bring Rupert Murdoch to his knees and had a huge impact on the tabloid media.

Mosley, who has died at the age of 81, was a relatively obscure figure to most until his sexual proclivities were exposed by the News of the World in 2008. At the time, the paper thought the story was an absolute slam dunk and it appeared under the headline: “F1 boss has sick Nazi orgy with 5 hookers”.

The paper paid one of the dominatrices to carry a hidden camera, and even went as far as to publish footage on its website.

In those days, papers like the News of the World cared less about privacy than they did about libel, as privacy damages tended to be tiny and very few people sued (because, as Mosley found out, even if you won, you lost).

Mosley’s High Court action against the paper meant all the sordid details were aired again over two weeks. Even though he was awarded record damages of £60,000 plus costs of £450,000, he said he was still left severely out of pocket.

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But he did succeed in changing the landscape of privacy in the UK.

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Put simply, he established that what a married man did with paid dominatrices in a Chelsea basement was his business alone. The fact he was committing adultery and betraying his wife did not cut it. After this, for private sexual matters to be exposed by the press, there had to be a wider public interest defence.

The News of the World thought it had the public interest nailed on with the Nazi angle. But unfortunately, it didn’t translate in the video. The judge decided that though the orgy participants were dressed in German military uniforms and speaking German, there were no allusions to the Nazis.

Mosley appeared to devote much of the rest of his life to fighting the tabloids and seeking media reform. We set out a potted history of his campaign here.

It is doubtful that the Press Complaints Commission would have been abolished and its replacement, IPSO, created without his involvement. He provided much of the financial muscle behind the campaign for press reform and was its most forthright public advocate.

He also provided crucial assistance to Nick Davies of The Guardian in helping him to uncover the phone-hacking scandal which brought down the News of the World and set in train the Leveson report, the abolition of the PCC and the creation of IPSO, as well as nearly creating a compulsory system of statute-backed press regulation.

Mosley recruited the private investigator Glenn Mulcaire as a security consultant and effectively paid him to share what he knew about phone-hacking at the News of the World with Davies. In his book, Hack Attack, Davies says Mosley told him he was moving his vast fortune from an offshore trust in Liechtenstein onshore to turn it into a fighting fund for his campaign against the tabloid press.

He paid for lawyer Mark Lewis to successfully sue the PCC for libel after its chairwoman Peta Buscombe said Lewis misled parliament about the number of voicemails intercepted by the News of the World. Mosley also underwrote the legal costs of numerous hacking victims. And via a family charity, the Alexander Mosley Charitable Trust, he has entirely underwritten the £1m-a-year cost of rival press regulator Impress.

Nearly seven years on from the launch of IPSO, and then Impress, the impact of Mosley’s efforts on the press regulation landscape is mixed. Impress is largely irrelevant because, while being tougher on paper than IPSO, no tabloids are signed up to it. And it is difficult to discern much difference between IPSO and the old PCC in practice. It has the power to compel frontpage corrections, which it has used. But it has never held an investigation into serious wrongdoing or levied a fine.

IPSO offers low-cost compulsory arbitration for settling libel and privacy complaints, which should be a significant deterrent, and provides access to justice for the less well-off. But there is no mention of anyone taking this up yet in IPSO’s annual report.

Tabloids are, however, immeasurably better behaved today than they were before the Leveson report, and Mosley can take much of the credit for this change.

Not only have News UK and Reach spent hundreds of millions on legal payouts to hacking victims, but all the tabloids know they are in the last-chance saloon when it comes to tougher statute-backed press regulation, which remains the stroke of a pen away. Huge legal penalties and the threat of tougher regulation are a powerful deterrent, and ensure a far more compliant tabloid culture today.

Mosley’s success at transforming privacy in the UK is another lasting legacy. Without him, it is unlikely that Meghan Markle and Prince Harry would have taken on the Mail on Sunday – and won.

Today, privacy rather than libel is the main legal concern of tabloid publishers and the Sunday tabloids in particular are unrecognisable compared with pre-2008. The kiss-and-tell is largely dead, and Mosley killed it.

This article was originally published in Press Gazette