World Agenda

Last updated: 28 july, 2010 - 15:48 GMT

Privacy matters

BBC World News presenter Zeinab Badawi chairs a previous Intelligence Squared Debate

BBC World News presenter Zeinab Badawi chairs a previous Intelligence Squared Debate

This September, BBC World News will be televising an Intelligence Squared Debate proposing that ‘the private lives of public figures deserve more protection from the press’ – and speaking for the motion will be former FIA president Max Mosley, who has brought a case against the UK’s privacy laws in the European Court of Human Rights.

In 2008, former president of motorsport’s FIA Max Mosley won a legal action against the News of the World newspaper over claims he took part in an orgy that had Nazi overtones. The court found no evidence of a Nazi theme and ruled that his privacy had been breached. He was awarded £60,000 in damages.

Max Mosley states his case:

“Do we need more protection from the press? The UK already has quite a good privacy law. It requires the individual’s right to privacy to be balanced against the public’s right to information. When these rights conflict, a judge applies an ‘intense focus’ to the particular case and decides which right should prevail. Entirely fair and reasonable, you might think.

“The problem is that the tabloid papers have a way of circumventing this law. When one of them decides on an illegal breach of privacy, it uses subterfuge, including ‘spoof’ first editions, to prevent the subject finding out until it’s too late. The tabloids know that once the story is published, no judge can remove it from the public mind (or the internet). They also know their victim won’t sue because the resulting publicity would make the breach of privacy even worse. So they can break the law with impunity, and they do.

“Tabloid newspapers should be compelled to give their victims an opportunity to seek the protection of a judge before publishing information they know a reasonable person would wish to keep private. Then privacy would be preserved unless the newspaper could satisfy a judge that publication was in the public interest.”

Mosley is now pursuing his case across Europe and wants to force the UK parliament to introduce privacy legislation that will set out journalists’ responsibilities. On 7 September he joins an Intelligence Squared Debate on BBC World News to argue that ‘the private lives of public figures deserve more protection from the press’.

Entitled Sex, Bugs and Video Tapes, the debate at London’s Cadogan Hall will be chaired by BBC World News presenter Zeinab Badawi. Speaking against the motion will be investigative journalist and author Tom Bower – who has published books on Robert Maxwell, Richard Branson, Mohamed Fayed and Conrad and Lady Black – and defence lawyer and former UK Director of Public Prosecutions Ken Macdonald QC.

A flawed principle?

Here, Jeremy O’Grady, co-founder of Intelligence Squared, introduces the debate:

“Publish and be damned.”

That celebrated phrase of the Duke of Wellington has effectively become the code by which the British press operates. And for many journalists, it amounts to a hallowed principle of press freedom. It’s up to a public figure to sue, they say, if he thinks his reputation has been unfairly tarnished.

However, for those on the receiving end – people like former Formula 1 boss Max Mosley, whose sadomasochistic encounter with prostitutes was broadcast across the web by the News of the World, or the parents of the abducted girl Madeleine McCann, whose private lives were dissected by the tabloids – that principle is fundamentally flawed.

Mosley successfully sued Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid for claiming his sex romp had had a Nazi theme, but he insists the £60,000 he was awarded does not begin to make up for the damage done by the exposure. It wasn’t just the inaccuracy of what was said, it was the very fact of making public the details of his private life.

“If someone takes away your dignity,” as he puts it, “you will never replace it.”

Co-founder of Intelligence Squared Jeremy O'Grady

Co-founder of Intelligence Squared Jeremy O'Grady

Or in Othello’s words: “He that filches from me my good name/Robs me of that which not enriches him/And makes me poor indeed.”

Mosley is now seeking a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg which would force newspaper editors to consult a person before publishing something he or she might reasonably wish to stay private. In this way, a public figure could go to court and get a gagging order before publication irreversibly damaged his good name.

Balance of power

But wouldn’t this just become a device for the rich and powerful to cover their tracks, a “battering ram”, in the words of Index on Censorship’s John Kampfner, “against good and legitimate journalism”?

Is it really possible to define a point at which the private lives of public figures cease to be a fair subject for public discussion? Or has the balance of power tilted so much in favour of the press that it has become impossible for public figures to have any sort of private life whatsoever? These are some of the big questions for this Intelligence Squared debate.

Sex, Bugs and Video Tapes: The Private Lives of Public Figures Deserve More Protection From the Press will take place on Tuesday, 7 September, 2010 at Cadogan Hall in London and will be broadcast on BBC World News on 18 September at 09:10, repeated at 21:10, and 19 September at 02:10 and 15:10 (these times are subject to change)


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