Max Mosley's court victory over the News of the World yesterday was immediately mourned in many sections of the media as heralding an end to the era of "kiss-and-tell" in British newspapers. As integral to our popular culture as the saucy seaside postcard and Carry On films, kiss-and-tell stories have, down the years, often been a force for good – morality tales for modern times.
They have exposed hypocrisy. They have enabled the poor and powerless to bring down the rich and famous (in return for handsome payment, of course). They have also – and the value of this should never be underestimated – added to the general spice of life and given the newspaper-reading public a rollicking good time. In terms of the dirty linen washed daily before Mr Justice Eady these past few weeks, the Mosley case was a classic of its kind.
Whether, as the editor of the News of the World, Colin Myler, lamented, "our press is less free today after another judgment based on privacy laws emanating from Europe", however, is at least open to contention. Mr Myler – understandably, as the losing party – may be looking at things in a rather bleaker light than strictly justified.
The newspaper had claimed that Max Mosley, a public figure by virtue of his position as President of the International Automobile Federation, had taken part in a "sick Nazi orgy with five hookers". Mr Mosley admitted the orgy, but insisted that it was a private matter between consenting adults, and he specifically denied any Nazi connotations. The case hinged on two points: his right to keep his unconventional sex life private and the existence or not of a Nazi theme.
But the News of the World had been unable to prove the key Nazi element that might have elevated the case into a matter of public interest. Even so, Mr Mosley was not awarded the punitive damages he had claimed. He has to be satisfied with £60,000 in compensation and the fact that the newspaper will be hit with a much larger bill for costs. In suggesting that there would have been no story without his father's Nazi past, Mr Mosley also had a point. He may not be a likeable character, but the times are thankfully past when the sins of the father are visited upon the children.
The question that remains open is whether the judge, in accepting that sexual activity by consenting adults in private is not a legitimate target for media exposure, has imposed new curbs on media freedom. At present, the two principles – media freedom and the right to personal privacy – are both enshrined in law, and it is inevitable that they periodically conflict. So long as the public interest continues to be recognised as justification for exposing personal conduct, however, the balance would seem to be about right.
At a time when personal privacy is both more highly prized and more often voluntarily surrendered on the internet, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with testing the limits of its protection in the courts. What has to be avoided, though, is the introduction of a privacy law by default. If we are to have such a law – and we would oppose one on the stifling Continental model – then it should be introduced by the front door, through Parliament after open public discussion, rather than through the back door of individual court rulings.
Max Mosley's victory may have shifted the bias, as between private life and public interest, a modest distance in the direction of privacy. It probably does not mean the death of "kiss-and-tell" as readers of the popular press have known it and loved it. But if it does, what a way – what a fantastically colourful and sordid way – for the genre to make its final bow.