A London High Court judge has ordered British tabloid News of the World to pay $120,000 in damages to motor-racing chief Max Mosley following a weeklong court hearing involving frank discussions of prostitution, sadomasochism and "Nazi"-fueled sex.
Mosley, 68, sued the tabloid for invasion of privacy after it posted video footage of him involved in what it frothily described as a "depraved Nazi-style orgy in a torture dungeon." Mosley admitted to participating in the orgy with five hookers but denied any Nazi overtones. The son of 1930s fascist Sir Oswald Mosley and Nazi sympathizer Lady Diana Mitford testified that, in fact, he finds Nazism unerotic. "All my life, I have had hanging over me my antecedents, my parents, and the last thing I want to do in some sexual context is be reminded of it," Mosley said.
Colin Myler, the tabloid's editor, defended the story as being of "legitimate public interest" given Mosley's role as head of the International Automobile Association (FIA). He also defended the paper's "fair and reasonable interpretation of Nazi-style role-play." In one article, the paper remarked that the striped uniforms worn by the women were "reminiscent of Auschwitz garb."
High Court judge David Eady dismissed that interpretation. "I found that there was no evidence that the gathering on 28 March 2008 was intended to be an enactment of Nazi behavior or adoption of any of its attitudes," he said in his 54-page ruling. "I see no genuine basis at all for the suggestion that the participants mocked the victims of the Holocaust."
The News of the World's defense crumbled when Woman E, a prostitute married to an agent of MI5, Britain's domestic investigation service, failed to show up in court. Her lawyer cited her "emotional and mental state." She had filmed the 5-hr. orgy with a secret camera and had been interviewed for an article titled "Exclusive: Mosley Hooker Tells All: My Nazi Orgy With F1 Boss." She had been expected to testify that Mosley specifically asked the women to facilitate a Nazi-themed sex romp. The other four prostitutes, one of whom is a Ph.D. candidate, all denied that Mosley requested any Nazi elements.
Justice Eady also rejected the notion that Mosley's private sex life should be made a matter for public consumption. "Although no doubt interesting to the public, was this genuinely a matter of public interest? I rather doubt it," he wrote.
In the week after the tabloid posted the footage online, traffic to its website increased by 600%, and 1.9 million people viewed the clip in which mock prison guards strip Mosley naked, inspect his head and genitals for lice and beat him with a whip. After being caned 21 times, Mosley begins to bleed and has to pause to apply a Band-Aid to his buttocks.
Mosley, who has kept a low profile since the news broke on March 30, expressed delight after the judge's ruling. "It demonstrates that their Nazi lie was completely invented and had no justification," he said. "It also shows that they had no right to go into private premises and take pictures and film of adults engaged in activities which are no one's business but those of the people concerned."
Arguments like that have unexpectedly cast Mosley as the poster boy for the U.K.'s BDSM (bondage, domination, submission and sadomasochism) community. Deborah Hyde, director of Backlash, a group campaigning against legislation that would outlaw BDSM-themed pornography in England and Wales next January, says Mosley has helped BDSM practitioners realize they have a community and that they shouldn't remain silent when others deem their practices sick and unusual. "Max Mosley has stood up for himself," she told TIME. "And that's inspired other people in the community to talk out loud about their experiences."
Myler, the News of the World editor, argued that the verdict rendered the press "less free." But Caroline Kean, head of litigation at media law firm Wiggin LLP, says the verdict is unlikely to curb serious investigative journalism. "It would be very different if something illegal had been going on or if Mr. Mosley had set himself as arbiter of public morals, campaigning against S&M," she says. Instead, she argues, the modest award of $120,000 will protect publications from high-stakes lawsuits from celebrities disgruntled over being photographed on the street. Now when celebrities sue for invasion of privacy, their cases will be compared to Mosley's and most likely draw much lower damages, she says.
For Mosley, already a multimillionaire, monetary compensation will do little to repair his personal life. As he testified last week, the scandal has been "totally devastating" to his wife of 48 years and "humiliating" for his two sons. "He is hardly exaggerating when he says that his life was ruined," Justice Eady wrote in his decision. Despite Mosley's fantasies involving canes, whips and spankings, a shattered family life could prove to be the pain that lasts the longest.