For democrats, the media’s right to investigate important issues that are in the public interest is at the heart of the freedom of the press.
Which is why, in theory, democrats should be applauding the indignation of much of Fleet Street over the ruling by a High Court judge that a national newspaper breached the privacy of a prominent sporting administrator.
“Our press is less free today after another judgment based on privacy laws emanating from Europe,” said the editor of the newspaper in question, as he emerged from the High Court last Thursday.
This judge, proclaimed the Daily Mail, is “single-handedly creating a new, tougher privacy law” in Britain. Other editors, lawyers and journalists joined the chorus against the judge’s ruling on the story.
There is one slight problem with the outrage of these proponents of press freedom — the article itself. Watergate it is not: a front-page story in the Murdoch-owned News of The World (aka News of The Screws) claiming that Max Mosley, the head of Formula One Grand Prix motor racing, had engaged in five hours of sado-masochistic Nazi role-playing s-x with several female partners in a Chelsea apartment.
The story ran under the heading “F1 Boss Has Sick Nazi Orgy With 5 Ho-kers” and was documented by one of Mr Mosley’s blonde partners placing a video camera the size of a sugar cube inside her underwear — for which she was promised US$50,000 by the News of the World (and later paid US$24,000).
The result of her work, and that of another hidden camera outside the apartment, was also displayed on the NoW’s website. Unfortunately for the tabloid press freedom crowd, not all their colleagues agree with them. This is what Guardian blogger Roy Greenslade wrote after the judgment:
It was obvious that the NoW’s story had not the least public interest justification. Mosley is hardly a public figure. To film him, and then to publish a sensational story based on the thinnest of thin “evidence” of his supposed Nazi interests, was contemptible.
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Without the Nazi allegations, as the paper knew well, there was no earthly reason to publish the story, beyond satisfying public prurience.
Of course Greenslade is correct. The fight for press freedom is crucially important, but it becomes a caricature when it is predicated on sleazy stories that festoon tabloids like the News of the World and its stablemates.
This debate is too serious to be represented by editors who pay dodgy characters to place hidden cameras in their underwear.