Leading article: Press ahead with shaming hypocrites

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The Independent Online

When Max Mosley appeared before the Commons committee investigating press standards and privacy yesterday there was no doubt that he was appealing to a receptive audience. You only had to witness the soft questioning to know that here was a group of MPs that sympathised with Mr Mosley's pleas that here was a private citizen pilloried by the press for what was an entirely personal practice of sado-masochistic sex.

They shouldn't be so easily taken in. The fact is that, as president of the International Automobile Federation, Mr Mosley is a public figure. The fact is also that, as a personality with a high profile, his actions, private as public, were bound to come under press scrutiny. "I had being doing this for 45 years and there had never been a hint and nobody knew," he protested to the committee adding: "My closest friends didn't know. My wife didn't know."

One gets the picture. For nearly half a century Mr Mosley had been indulging in sexual practices which he had kept secret from his wife and friends. The media's sin was not to make up the stories, nor exaggerate let alone lie about what he did. Their crime was to embarrass him in front of his wife and shame him before the public, to dent as he so self-righteously pronounced, his precious "dignity".

To proclaim the absolute right of privacy, as Mr Mosley does, is to misunderstand both the role of the press and the obligations of those in public life. The press's job is to sniff out hypocrisy and bad behaviour, private or public. It may not always be for the worthiest of reasons or with the most honourable of aims. But it is what keeps the body politic in the widest sense accountable. The rules of privacy and libel are there to protect people from liars and vindictiveness, not errant men from public ridicule.

For Mr Mosley to broaden his recent victory in the courts to proclaim a general right of privacy against press intrusion would be to open the gates to quite unwarranted and self-defeating censorship. The press is there not as guarantor of the rich against embarrassment but of society against the hypocrisy of the powerful. If Mr Mosley wants to save himself from shame, he should not keep secrets from his wife.

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