08:59, March 11 235 0 theguardian.com

2018-03-11 08:59:08
Media blog  
 I once sympathised with Max Mosley, but he's really lost me now

Soon after the News of the World accused Max Mosley in March 2008 of taking part in what the paper called a “sick Nazi orgy with five hookers”, I took his side. As a longtime sceptic about the truth of such stories published by that unlamented newspaper, I suspected all was not as suggested. Had the son of the former fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley really adopted his father’s Nazi sympathies?

Months later, my suspicions were confirmed when a high court judge decided there were no Nazi connotations to the sadomasochistic scenario. Mosley was awarded £60,000 for breach of privacy.

But the judgment did nothing to assuage Mosley’s anger at having his private peccadillos made public. He went to the European court of human rights (ECHR) to try to force newspapers to inform their “targets” in advance, thereby giving them time to obtain a court injunction to prevent immediate publication.

In February 2011, while the court was considering his proposal, the Guardian hosted an exchange of views between me and Mosley in which I argued that, despite my sympathies for the invasion of his privacy, his remedy was an unacceptable denial of press freedom. Mosley stood his ground, as he did when, without rancour, we again aired our differences at City University. Then, in May, the ECHR rejected Mosley’s case, ruling that a “pre-notification requirement” would have a negative effect on investigative journalism.

Meanwhile, bubbling away in the background was another controversy involving the News of the World (NoW). The Guardian’s Nick Davies was chasing a story that would break in July 2011: the phone-hacking scandal.

The ramifications of his revelation that the paper’s reporters obtained stories by intercepting thousands of mobile-phone voicemail messages were far-reaching. Within days, the newspaper was closed by its owner, Rupert Murdoch, after readers and advertisers revolted. Mosley pursued his war against the paper by underwriting the court costs of phone-hacking claimants.

High-level police resignations were followed by arrests of NoW staff – including the former editor Andy Coulson. Murdoch’s most senior UK executive, Rebekah Brooks, resigned. Most significant of all was the panic in Downing Street; David Cameron came under intense pressure, having recruited Coulson as his director of communications. In response, the then prime minister set up a two-part judicial inquiry chaired by Sir Brian Leveson.

The first part, to consider “the culture, practices and ethics” of the British press, was dogged by controversy. The owners and editors of the majority of newspapers – national, regional and local – believed they were being punished for the sins of one title, which no longer existed. However, many media academics who had been concerned for several years about press misbehaviour regarded the inquiry as a way to institute reforms to reporting methods and to press regulation, which was viewed as inadequate. Along with people who considered themselves victims of newspaper intrusion, they set up the campaign group Hacked Off.

Mosley, unsurprisingly, was an enthusiastic supporter. I also backed the group’s aims until Leveson issued his report in November 2012. I could not countenance the government’s post-Leveson “settlement”, brokered by Hacked Off, which required newspapers to sign up to a state-approved regulator. Almost the entire press rejected the decision and it became clear that Cameron had initiated a process that would result in a prolonged battle of attrition between newspapers and Hacked Off.

Several newspaper owners set up their own regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso), while the government created a body to approve another independent regulator, known as Impress. Using the Leveson report as some kind of bible, both sides claimed compliance, by spirit if not by letter, with its recommendations.

Mosley attracted hostility from the mainstream press because his family trust was the major funder of Impress. He ignored the increasingly shrill complaints in the Daily Mail, the Sun and Daily Telegraph about what they regarded as his vendetta against the press.

He used his wealth to continue his battle over the NoW revelations, launching legal actions against Google in France and Germany to prevent searches from returning web pages that used images from the orgy video filmed by the paper. The courts ruled in his favour.

His next move was more surprising and, in my view, a step too far. A month ago, he threatened to sue Britain’s largest newspaper groups for an alleged breach of the Data Protection Act by continuing to refer to the orgy. In effect, he wanted to delete history.

Unbeknown to him, his history was being investigated by Daily Mail reporters. They unearthed a 1961 leaflet bearing Mosley’s name as publisher on behalf of a parliamentary candidate standing for a far-right party founded by his father. It contained views that cannot pretend to be anything other than racist – notably a claim that migrants were responsible for spreading venereal disease and leprosy. It was significant because Mosley had been questioned in court about the leaflet during his case against the NoW. The paper had been unable to produce it, and Mosley said he could not recall its existence.

I was initially willing to sympathise with Mosley on the grounds that he must surely have changed his mind in the 56 years since. And then, to my amazement, I watched him being interviewed on Channel 4 News by Cathy Newman. First, he sought to deny that the leaflet was real. Then, having accepted it might be, he failed to agree that its contents were overtly racist. I found myself shaking my head. Despite our differences, I had always found Mosley to be civil, courteous and, yes, liberal.

I realise live interviews can be tough, so I was still willing to suspend judgment … until he was interviewed by Dan Sabbagh for the Guardian. There were at least three gobsmacking moments. First, his admission that he supported repatriation because it is “perfectly legitimate to offer immigrants financial inducements to go home”. Second, his defence of his past views on apartheid, which prompted Sabbagh to comment: “It is, frankly, difficult to listen to this.” And third, Mosley’s response when asked if it would be appropriate to issue an apology for his past actions: “Who do you apologise to? … If there was a West Indian immigrant here in this room, who said to me: ‘That really upset me,’ I would apologise to them profusely. Because that is the individual. But apologising to the world at large seems to me kind of pointless.”

Pointless? Mosley refers to himself in emails as Johnny Nomates. Although it is a self-deprecating joke, I am not laughing with him any more. And I imagine, from their silence, that many academics who previously rallied to his side are not laughing either.

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