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Privacy suit may change tabloids

Stephen Beard Jul 23, 2008

Privacy suit may change tabloids

Stephen Beard Jul 23, 2008


Kai Ryssdal: Nobody does tabloid journalism quite like the Brits do. They invented it more than a century ago and today British tabloids lead the world in brashness and sensationalism.

Their pursuit of sex scandals is relentless, but that particular business model is facing a major challenge because there’s a big case about the right to privacy going on in the High Court in London.

A verdict’s expected tomorrow and it could have a big impact on the way British tabloids operate and on their profitability.

from London, Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports.

Stephen Beard: For the tabloid press, this story has been an absolute humdinger — a high octane, turbocharged, jet-propelled humdinger.

[Gentlemen, Start your engines!]

The man at the centre of the scandal is the boss of the Formula One Motor Racing organisation Max Mosley. The 68-year-old was secretly filmed in a sadomasochistic orgy. Five ladies dressed in military uniform took part. Mosley spoke German. The News of the World described this tableau as “Nazi,” causing an extra frisson because of Mosley’s origins.

[Speech by Oswald Mosley]

Mosley is the son of this man, Sir Oswald Mosley, head of Britain’s Fascist Party in the 1930s. The story is a tabloid dream: wealth, lurid sex and deviant politics.

Media analyst Chris Horrie:

Chris Horrie: A story like this could easily put on 10 percent to their total circulation. It could give them another 200-300,000 pounds, about half a million dollars, on the first day.

But that profit could be lost if Mosley wins his case, and it could threaten the health of the entire tabloid industry. The Formula One boss has sued the News of the World not for defamation but for invading his privacy, now protected by the European Convention of Human Rights.

Horrie: A couple of years ago, he wouldn’t have sued at all because they have the evidence, but now he’s saying, “It doesn’t matter if this is true or false; it’s a breach of my new European-style privacy right.”

The News of the World claims that the story was in the public interest — a public figure was involved in Nazi roleplay. But Mosley says he only spoke German during the orgy out of courtesy because one of the ladies was German.

Tim Luckhurst is Professor of Journalism at Kent University. He says the courts have recently sided with the targets of the tabloids.

Tim Luckhurst: We’re increasingly seeing judges are prepared to protect public figures from the sorts of intrusion which in the past was regarded as the lifeblood of British tabloid journalism.

The News of World got its scoop in the usual way: One of the ladies filmed a Mosley spanking session for a promise of $50,000, although in the end, the paper paid her only half the fee, blaming it on the credit crunch.

Media lawyer Keith Mathieson thinks that Mosley will win the case.

Keith Mathieson: I think the judge will find that you are entitled to keep your sex life private, however peculiar it may seem to other people, however bizarre the acts may be.

The Formula One boss is asking for punitive damages that could be as much as $2 million. He says if he wins he’ll give the money to a charity promoting motor racing safety.

In London, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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