Max Mosley: Revenge of the named and shamed

Since his sex life was splashed across the press, he has been determined to see a right to privacy in the UK. Now he's taking his case to Europe. Peter Burden meets... Max Mosley
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The Independent Online

At 9.30am on a crisp winter's day there are no ladies in the Ladies' Bar at the Chelsea Arts Club. A log fire glows in the grate, flickering on framed cartoons from the past hundred years, hung on warm red walls. Max Mosley, son of Oswald, leader of the British Union of Fascists during the war, arrives promptly for our meeting and looks around with approval. A trim, handsome man of 68 and dressed with neat, understated casualness, he exudes confidence and charm.

He's needed a lot of both over the past nine months. Last week the veteran Scottish Formula One champion Jackie Stewart called for Mosley's removal from his post as president of the FIA, the body that runs motor racing, to make way for a more "modern" style of direction. This is not the first time Stewart has called for him and Bernie Ecclestone to be removed, as Mosley drily points out. Previously he has said he is tired and won't stay beyond the expiry of his contract this year, but apparently he's changed his mind. Today, he does not encourage questions on the subject.

In March last year, the News of the World paid a woman to make a clandestine video of a private party Mosley held in a Chelsea basement. He and five women, each paid £500, gathered to engage in a session of sado-masochistic role-playing. The result was a front-page News of the World headline, "F1 BOSS HAS SICK NAZI ORGY WITH 5 HOOKERS", complete with a video of the event on its website.

Evidently Mosley had been engaged in sexual sado-masochism for some years, and says he is unashamed of his preferences (even if Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, calls them "acts of unimaginable sexual depravity"). But he concedes that, because S&M is unusual, it is often viewed with derision or disapproval. For this reason, he says, he had always kept his preferences hidden from his wife Jean and his sons, to protect them from any shame or embarrassment. He was prepared to face the indignity of having his sexual preferences discussed in open court, he says, in order to protect his private life and that of future innocent parties.

He sued for invasion of privacy under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, and won. "I couldn't believe the interest when I turned up to find hordes of photographers outside every day," he says. Mosley wasn't unfamiliar with courts. After he'd left Christ Church, Oxford in 1961 with a degree in physics, he studied law at Gray's Inn and became a barrister in 1964.

The nation's delight at the salaciousness of the case was matched by Mosley's delight at the holes in the News of the World defence. The paper's star witness ( "Woman E") didn't turn up, which was a disappointment as James Price, his barrister, had soft-pedalled the attack on another witness in the expectation of challenging her.

"We knew, for example, that Colin Myler [the paper's editor] had been on holiday when they put out a second article the following Sunday, in which they heavily quoted an 'expert' witness on anti-Semitism who claimed that we'd clearly recreated a Nazi concentration camp for the session. When we looked into it, this man's expertise turned out to be heavy metal rock, and on his website one of his talents was given as 'pretending to knowledge I don't possess'. It seems extraordinary that a wealthy national paper, given the dozens of qualified experts on the Holocaust, should have resorted to someone of this calibre to back up a major story. But James never had an opportunity to cross-examine the deputy editor, Jane Johnson, about her choice of expert."

The News of the World's failure to prove a Nazi theme, and thus a legitimate public interest, handed victory to Mosley, who was awarded £60,000 for the invasion of his privacy. Much of Fleet Street was outraged. This was a privacy law by stealth, they cried. If it is, Mosley is delighted. He is not keen to discuss the effects of the case on his personal life, perhaps understandably, but he is a positive torrent on the subject of his war against what he sees as press intrusion.

"We're now suing the News of the World, Colin Myler and Neville Thurlbeck [the reporter] for libel in France, where the paper's openly sold," Mosley says. "Over there this kind of privacy invasion by the media is subject to criminal prosecution, and it's now in the hands of a juge d'instruction. In Italy the paper's invasion of privacy is being looked at by the state prosecutor. Our libel action is an adjunct to legal proceedings, and if they prosecute, prison for the editor and reporter is an option in both countries. All the big German papers that splashed the story across their front pages have settled and published retractions – except for Bild. But we're pursuing them, and the public prosecutor in Berlin has issued a Strafanzeige [a criminal complaint] against their board."

One of Mosley's chief contentions is that the paper gave him no warning of (or chance to repudiate) what it was going to do. "At the moment," he says, "the person who decides whether or not a story like this will get published is a paper's editor. And an editor is under no legal obligation to tell the subject of such a story that he intends to print it, offering no opportunity to have its lawfulness tested in front of a judge beforehand. Once it's published, of course, it can't be unpublished – it's out there for the world to see.

"If a paper were legally obliged to let their target know what they were intending to publish, but were then able to convince a judge that their story did have a genuine public interest, they'd be able to go ahead and publish lawfully."

To most journalists, the idea of judges vetting articles before publication is outlandish, but Mosley is on a roll. He says everyone is entitled to privacy under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, and he plans to take the Government to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg for failing to implement the HRA properly, by not making provision for an individual's pro-active defence of their privacy.

Another thing that irks Mosley is the penalties applied to transgressors. In theory, British courts can impose "punitive" or "exemplary" damages as a deterrent, but many judges, including the presiding judge in his case, Mr Justice Eady, are not keen. He sees little point in the plaintiff being awarded a massive windfall. "What's needed," Mosley says, "is what they have on the Continent, which is a criminal sanction. That way courts could either send offenders to prison or impose fines that were big enough to make their eyes water, and go into state coffers."

The problem with interviewing Mosley is that the questions that would be most revealing, the most human ones, are off-limits. Why should he talk about how his wife of 48 years feels about images of him having his bottom shaved? (In the past he has limited himself to saying that she was "very embarrassed" but that they were staying together.) What does it have to do with me or anyone else how he gets his sexual kicks? Of course, he says, if you have a legitimate story with a proper public interest, go for it. But do we really need judges to make editorial judgments? Couldn't the Press Complaints Commission do that? "Unfortunately the PCC just isn't truly independent," Mosley replies. "Self-regulation is like putting the alcoholics in charge of the brewery. There's little they can – or at least, are prepared – to do."

In countries such as France, Germany and Italy, invasion of privacy is a criminal offence. "Most MPs are too terrified of Murdoch and Dacre and the mass media to pass voluntarily any legislation which might hamper the activities of the press – especially the tabloids," Mosley says. "The only way of getting the law changed – which I think almost all politicians want, though they'd never say so publicly – would be to get a judgement in Strasbourg, which they would have to follow. Then they could claim they had no choice."

Life in the fast lane

1940 Born just weeks before the internment of his parents, Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, and Diana Mitford of the famous Mitford family. They were detained for three years during the Second World War because of their political activities.

1951 Aged 11, Max moved to France with his family, then to Germany for schooling. Later attended Millfield boarding school in England. Read physics at Christ Church, Oxford. Was secretary of the Oxford Union.

1960 Married Jean Marjorie Taylor.

1961 Served in the Parachute Regiment of the Territorial Army.

1964 Called to the Bar after a five-year stint as a lawyer in London.

1968 Took part in his first Formula Two race at Hockenheim, Germany, where he finished 10th out of 18 cars in the first heat. It was the same race in which former world champion Jim Clark was killed.

1969 Retired from driving, used his legal skills to help set up racing car manufacturer March Engineering. Represented March at the Grand Prix Constructors' Association.

1970, 1972 Sons Alexander James and Patrick Max were born.

1974 Created the Formula One Constructors Association (Foca) along with Bernie Ecclestone and others to represent the commercial interests of racing teams.

1982 Left Foca to work for the Conservative Party in the hope of becoming a potential parliamentary candidate; later said a political career was impossible because of his name.

1991 Became president of the Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (Fisa), the sporting arm of Formula One's regulatory body.

1993 Began his first of four four-year terms as president of the FIA, playing an important role in ensuring high standards in car safety assessment.

2008 Filmed by 'News of the World' taking part in an alleged "Nazi orgy". Wins court case for breach of privacy and receives damages of £60,000.