Former Formula One boss says references to ‘private party’ breach Data Protection Act

Max Mosley is threatening to sue Britain’s three largest newspaper groups, claiming they are in breach of the Data Protection Act because they continue to refer to an infamous sadomasochistic orgy involving the former Formula One boss a decade ago.

The 77-year-old claims that data protection and privacy laws require the press to stop disseminating information about him that is not in the public interest, but media lawyers as well as the newspaper owners say his demand is an attempt to rewrite the historical record.

Underscoring the battle is a long-running row about the state of press regulation after the Leveson inquiry in which Mosley is trying to put pressure on hostile newspapers to create an independent regulator recognised by the state.

This week Mosley’s lawyers sent a five-page letter to the publishers of the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Times and the Daily Mirror insisting that the titles stop publishing details relating to what he describes as a “private party” and delete what he says are inaccurate references about his relationship to a small press regulator called Impress.

The Daily Mail and the Times responded by publishing articles attacking Mosley’s manoeuvre. Stephen Glover, writing in the Mail, said it was “a dark story about how one very wealthy man is trying to undermine the freedoms enjoyed by the press” while an editorial in the Times accused him of “an attack on press freedom generally”.

In an interview with the Guardian, Mosley said the newspapers were engaged in “a commercial campaign” against him because they did not like his privacy campaigning and his arm’s length financial support for Impress, which is the first and only press regulator in the UK to have been recognised by the Press Recognition Panel, set up by Royal Charter following the Leveson inquiry . No national newspapers have yet signed up to Impress.

He accused the titles of referencing the orgy to belittle him and said he had resorted to data protection law because he did not trust Ipso, the independent regulator set up by the large newspaper groups, including the owners of the Mail, Times and Mirror. The Guardian is not a member of Ipso and deals with complaints separately.

“What the Data Protection Act does is stop people publishing false information or information in breach of privacy. There are exemptions for newspapers; those who are doing their job have nothing to fear,” Mosley said. He added that if the newspapers did not respond within 21 days he would most likely “go to court”.

The most eye-catching element in the complaint is his demand that the titles stop referring in detail to the S&M orgy, which was secretly filmed by one of its participants in the pay of the News of the World, and published on the front page of the now defunct Rupert-Murdoch-owned newspaper with video on its website.

Mosley, the son of the British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, took the tabloid title to court in 2008 in a trial that was widely reported at the time. He won a landmark legal victory, which asserted he had a right to privacy under English law as far as the party was concerned and won £60,000 in damages. Mr Justice Eady, presiding, also held that “there was no public interest” for reporting what had happened at the event involving Mosley and five women.

Nearly a decade later, Mosley and his lawyers assert under data protection law that newspapers can no longer refer to this in any detail because they do not have a public interest exemption that allows them to do so.

Mosley also wants the newspaper groups to stop saying he has control or influence over Impress. He says his family’s charitable trust has guaranteed to fund the Independent Press Regulation Trust, which in turn provided £3.8m in 2015 for four years’ worth of funding to Impress in an arm’s length relationship. “It is false information and under the Data Protection Act you mustn’t store it – so cross it out please,” Mosley added.

The Times, owned by Murdoch’s News UK, says Mosley wants the newspaper to purge its online archives of the references to the both the News of the World trial and the funding of Impress.

“The details of Mr Mosley ‘s complaints are complex, verging on arcane, but they boil down to an assertion that the public does not have a right to know that he has donated some £3m to support Impress, the country’s only state-backed regulator, via a charity set up in his late son’s name and that to this extent the regulator is reliant on his largesse,” the Times said in a leader this week.

The intervention comes at a time when there are growing concerns about the implications of existing data protection law – and increasing attempts to use it against the press. In January, peers voted to amend a data protection bill to implement section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, which would force a newspaper to cover the legal costs of the claimant in any libel case even if it had won, unless it had joined a recognised regulator such as Impress.

Mosley said he hoped to highlight the section 40 debate with his legal complaint, arguing that it would force the large newspaper groups “to revamp Ipso”. However, Theresa May has pledged to reverse the Lords amendment, and the introduction of section 40 is unanimously opposed across Fleet Street because it would force newspapers to pay legal costs of both sides even in libel cases they won.

Mark Stephens, a senior partner and media lawyer at Howard Kennedy said there were good reasons for law and journalism students to study the details of the Mosley-News of the World case, because it was a test case for privacy. He added that if the data protection complaint were to succeed it would have serious implications. “Effectively people will be able to airbrush history. In terms of using the law, this is entirely novel,” Stephens added.

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