Mosley: Can the press be free but responsible?

Max Mosley is surrounded by the media during practice for the British F1 Grand Prix at Silverstone, England on June 19, 2009.

Story highlights

  • Mosley's interest in people's treatment at the hands of the media stems from his own experiences
  • He asks how media excesses can be curbed without restricting press freedom?
  • Two key issues for dealing with media abuse are cost of litigation and enforcement, says Mosley
  • Mosley: Whatever system is introduced will also have to work for the internet

Just when you think the UK phone-hacking scandal can't get any worse, it does. The last few days have brought allegations of public officials being bribed and a senior newspaper executive ordering the deletion of "unhelpful" emails to conceal evidence.

It's five years since former News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire went to prison for phone hacking. Both were working for News International who maintained no one else was involved.

In reality, journalists had been hacking on an industrial scale -- even, allegedly, the phone of a missing 13-year-old girl who was later found murdered. This led directly to the closure of the News of the World, until then one of the biggest-selling English language newspapers.

I had a problem with the News of the World myself in 2008. They paid a participant to film sexual activity I was engaged in with five women. Not only that, they invented a story this involved "Nazi" role-play -- a complete fabrication. They thought I would be too embarrassed to sue. They were wrong, I sued and won. And the experience made me very interested in what they had done to other people.

The News of the World is dead, but it seems unlikely that phone hacking, bribery and other illegal news-gathering techniques were confined to that one paper. So the UK now has a problem. How do we stop these tabloid excesses but without restricting press freedom?

The question is being examined by an official inquiry led by a very senior judge, Lord Justice Leveson. He has already heard evidence from newspaper editors, journalists and their victims. He is now hearing from the police, who must explain why they failed to investigate properly until very recently. After that, it will be our most senior politicians, some of whom were allegedly far too close to certain major newspapers.

Leveson has issued a general request for solutions. He wants a regulatory regime which ensures a free and independent press but without the abuses. Like others, I recently sent him a proposal, which in my case, sets out to solve two main problems. First, cost. Litigation for defamation or breach of privacy is ruinously expensive. This means only the wealthy currently have access to justice. Second, enforcement. The body charged with regulating the press, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), failed. It had rules but no means of enforcing them.

I believe we need two entirely separate bodies, one to make the rules, the other to enforce them. The rule-making body could even emerge from the existing PCC which already has quite a good, but unenforced code.

But an entirely separate tribunal should apply both the rules and the law. It would have a central secretariat and a nationwide network of adjudicators. These would be practicing lawyers who worked for the tribunal but only when needed. The UK already uses such a system for some of its judges.

Hearings would involve only the immediate parties -- the journalist and the subject; no lawyers save in very exceptional circumstances. Each hearing would start with an attempt at mediation. But if this failed the adjudicator would hear the case.

The fundamental change is that, unlike the courts, all this would be free. Any individual could protect their rights, not just the small minority who can afford to risk hundreds of thousands in fees. It would also mean that newspapers would no longer face massive legal costs. It would be rough and ready justice compared to the expensive court procedures we have now but it would be available to all.

The adjudicator would have the same powers as a court. The parties in dispute would not be able to go to the High Court unless a judge was satisfied that both had the necessary means and the complexity of the case required it. This would stop financial power being used by a big newspaper to bully an ordinary individual or by a rich individual to oppress a small newspaper.

Whatever system we build will ultimately need to work for the internet. The internet is a real challenge because, unlike a newspaper where the editor decides what appears, anyone can publish on the web. And it's cross border, so multi-jurisdictional. Yet we need to provide redress, for example, when a child is being bullied on social media or someone is victimized in a very local way.

For this, a network of adjudicators would work well. However, unlike the printed press, where new rules can be introduced quickly, the internet will take time. But international laws and conventions will surely come. And when they do, we would have a suitable system already in place and working.

      The hacking scandal

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