When Max Mosley was a little boy, his mother had a name for him. The society beauty and Nazi sympathiser called her son der Entschlossene, or “the determined one”.
Diana Mosley was not to know just how this trait would define Max’s life in retirement. Three years ago, when he was about to step down as the head of the FIA, the regulating body of Formula One, the News of the World ran its story under the headline “F1 boss has sick Nazi orgy with five hookers”. Since then, Mosley has been waging his own world war. First he took the newspaper to court in the UK and won: the judge said his sado-masochistic party had nothing to do with Nazis and was a private matter. Now he is fighting in 21 other countries to clean the internet of images of his flailed buttocks and has most recently taken the battle to Strasbourg, where he is fighting for the privacy of others.
I knock at the dark green door in a mews in Knightsbridge and am greeted by a spry man who looks younger than 70, with fine, even features wearing an elegantly cut tweed jacket and well-polished shoes. Max Mosley leads me up the beige carpeted stairs, through a house as impersonal as a luxury hotel.
“I did enjoy your article in the FT this morning,” he says, his voice unexpectedly soft and gentle. And then: “Awfully rude of me to invite you at lunchtime and give you nothing to eat.”
I sink into a comfortable sofa and glance at the uncomfortable questions I’ve written in my notebook. “Why was MM drawn to S&M?” and “Was the death of MM’s son related to the stories about his father?”
Instead I ask why his house is so tidy. He explains that his proper London home is up the road, but he comes here to work and to sleep. “It keeps me out of my wife’s hair,” he explains.
Mosley had planned to spend his retirement writing a book about motor racing; instead he sits in his study downstairs typing his own name into Google to see what people are writing about him and then talking to his lawyers. “It’s endless,” he says, waving his hand vaguely.
A few days before our meeting his legal team had been arguing in the European Court of Human Rights that newspapers must notify people in advance of stories appearing about them, giving them the chance to seek an injunction. His proposal sounds perfectly reasonable, yet the press is up in arms about “Mosley’s Law”, claiming it would prevent legitimate stories – like the one about MPs’ expenses – from being published.
“The average media person is so horrified at the thought of any kind of regulation, that they cease to think rationally about it,” says Mosley, who speaks with the confidence of a man whose early training was as a barrister and who has an unshakeable belief in the rightness of his position.
“When the tabloids get a story that’s absolutely outrageous, a total violation of someone’s privacy, they keep it completely secret, and then publish it knowing that once it’s out, the victim won’t sue.”
When Mosley’s own story broke in 2008 he was advised by his lawyers to do nothing. They told him that if he lost it would cost him £1m in legal fees, and even if he won (as he did) he would still be out of pocket and, instead of getting his privacy back, his story would be broadcast in excruciatingly sordid detail to hundreds of millions of people who would never have picked up a copy of News of the World.
“To sue, you have to be eccentric to the point of being pretty mad,” he says. Yet the serious man who faces me, legs neatly crossed, gives every appearance of being highly conventional and profoundly sane. So why did he decide to fight?
“Destroying people’s lives for the sake of selling a few newspapers is utterly, completely wrong. I always thought someone ought to stop it. And then suddenly I found myself in the situation where this story had been written about me, I was about to retire, I’ve got the resources, and I’ve the time. If anyone’s going to do it, it should be me.”
Maybe Max Mosley is unusually brave. Or maybe he’s just found that the best way to respond when you are cast as a depraved pervert is to reinvent yourself as a freedom fighter. Either way, the cost is heavy. He tells me that he’s spending hundreds of thousands a year on lawyers, almost none of which he will get back. That’s a lot, I say.
“Yes, except you see I don’t have a plane and I don’t have a yacht. This isn’t as expensive as a decent yacht.”
He gives a smile, but his eyes look empty.
“I will always be known for…” he pauses. “For this. It’s like Othello. I forget the exact quote, but it says reputation is everything.”
I supply: “Reputation, reputation, reputation. Oh, I have lost my reputation.”
“Brilliant! That’s it!” he says, as if I were terribly clever for remembering this most hackneyed quote.
“I have lost the immortal part of myself and what remains is bestial.”
“What they’ve done is so total and awful. You see, I was born into this rather strange family and then at a certain point you get away from that.”
“Rather strange” is a nice way of putting it. His father, Oswald Mosley, was the leader of the British Union of Fascists. His parents were married in Goebbels’ house, with Hitler as guest of honour. They were arrested when Max was 11 weeks old and when the police came to get his mother, she thrust her photographs of Hitler under his cot mattress. His name, he has often said, prevented a career in politics, so he went into motor racing instead, where no one gave a fig about Oswald Mosley.
“I started working away in motor racing and you gradually build yourself a sort of aura. The work I did on road safety made me think I’ve done something quite good in my life. I’ve got all sorts of awards from governments in different countries and then, suddenly, something like this comes up – which is just something you happened to do – and it becomes the defining element of your image.”
I think it’s slightly sad the way he feels the need to tell me about his awards. I’m also bothered by the way he keeps drifting from “I” to “you”, almost as if he’s talking about someone else. To refer to his orgy as “just something you happened to do” seems a bit off; I’m about to raise it with him when the door bell goes. It’s the photographer, asking where he can set up his kit.
“The only place that is off limits is the bedroom. It’s a complete mess.”
I give an involuntary, inward smirk at this perfectly ordinary remark, and immediately feel bad for doing so. The grim truth is that Mosley is right: he will always be known for this.
“It’s worse for my family, the wife and so on. She doesn’t like going out, she doesn’t want to meet people. And you see for her, there’s nothing. For me, there’s the battle.”
I then ask the wretched question in my notebook. A year after the story broke, Max Mosley’s elder son Alexander died of a drug overdose. Were the two events connected?
“Well I think it’s very easy to blame the people you don’t like,” he starts, speaking in the same tone of voice he used to apologise for the lack of refreshments. “But he was one of those sort of people, he was brilliantly clever – he did a maths PhD. But from his mid-twenties he had a drug problem and he was struggling to overcome it. Now whether … undoubtedly the News of the World story had a very bad effect on him. So it added to his difficulties. Certainly.”
I wonder if, in addition to blaming the News of the World, he also puts any blame on himself. He gives another reasonable nod.
“Absolutely true. The average tabloid journalist will say, if you weren’t doing something wrong there wouldn’t be a story. But then the question is: What’s wrong? Doing something legal between consenting adults is not wrong.”
Again, he is speaking like a barrister in court and, on a roll, anticipates my next question.
“People then say, but what about your marriage vows? To which the answer is, yes, absolutely right. But the fact of the matter is that if you eliminated from any responsible position everybody who had ever cheated on their partner there wouldn’t be a lot of people left.”
Even if Mosley’s “party” wasn’t wrong, it is nevertheless psychologically interesting. To discover that someone – in particular your husband of 50 years – is into BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadism, masochism) inevitably makes you see them in a new light. When I put this view to him he says he understands it, but it is based on a misapprehension. An interest in BDSM doesn’t affect the rest of your behaviour at all.
“I think it’s like being homosexual. It’s a quirk in your character. People have to be adult and simply say, well it’s sex and sex is very strange. Even ordinary sex is either very funny or disgusting, or both. That’s how it is, we’re animals in the end.”
Yet isn’t inflicting pain on others for fun something that even animals don’t do?
“Yes, if you’re a civilised human being there’s a great reluctance to hurt somebody. You may find it disagreeable, but you do it because you’re giving such pleasure to the other person. In that world it’s an absolute taboo to go beyond the limit of the victim if you’re the oppressor.”
But how does the oppressor know what the limits are, I ask, mirroring his matter-of-fact tone. Indeed someone watching us converse might conclude from our body language that we were discussing the weather.
“I’m not informed enough to really know,” he says, for once giving a less-than-complete answer. “I’m not really practised at this. I know the impression’s been given it’s a big thing, it was only ever a small thing. I used to go for years without doing anything at all.”
Does he know, I ask, what draws him to that world, as he calls it?
“Conventional wisdom says it is about something that happened when I was a child. But no one ever hit me.”
But surely having parents in prison was a pretty rough start in life?
“I remember when I was with my nanny in the country, every now and then we’d go and visit these two people in this strange building. It all felt completely normal. I can remember the inside of Holloway jail. There was an open space with asphalt and a few little plants. Then when my parents came out, I only saw them maybe once a day. My father was always very nice to me.”
He warns that my panting eagerness to try to connect his weird upper-class upbringing with his interest in BDSM is quite wrong.
“I don’t know one single person in that world who was brought up by nannies, not one. I’ve talked to the girls who are completely into all that sort of thing – far more than me – and yet, they can’t point to anything in their childhood which might conceivably have triggered it. The only common denominator is they started being interested when they were about three or four years old – and that’s true of me as well.” How did he know?
“Because there was something – if you heard some story about somebody being beaten – it triggered.” Triggered what?
“A deep interest,” he continues smoothly. “As soon as I even knew, or half knew, what sex was, I saw being beaten as a sexual activity.”
It strikes me that Mosley, with his keen brain and eloquent style, makes an excellent poster boy for BDSM. Perhaps he enjoys it: it must be a relief to be able to talk about it openly after 50 years in the closet. I put this to him but he shakes his head.
“It’s embarrassing to talk about. I feel that sex should always be private. If people hear that so-and-so does such and such, the reaction shouldn’t be: Oooooh! It should be: Oh, for God’s sake that’s sex, don’t even discuss it.”
We are a long way from that in the UK. Shortly after the verdict, Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, gave a speech in which he referred to Mosley’s “unimaginable sexual depravity” and argued that it was the duty of the press to uphold the nation’s morality.
“Whose morality? Paul Dacre’s morality? Whenever I talk to undergraduates, I say that for Mr Dacre sex must consist of drawing the curtains, turning out the light and assuming the missionary position. I have nothing against that. I’m a liberal. What I don’t want is him coming into my bedroom and telling me what to do.”
I try another argument used by the tabloid press. People in the public eye are role models and therefore have a duty to behave in a certain way.
“If someone is a role model and they’re doing something they shouldn’t do, the last thing you want to do is expose that. You have to ask, does what this person say achieve the objective of persuading people to behave better? Whether he’s actually doing it or not is beside the point as long as it doesn’t come out.”
Isn’t that a bit hypocritical?
“In the end people are hypocritical. What’s so wrong with hypocrisy?”
For the first time in an hour and a half I am shocked by Mosley. Otherwise he has struck me as entirely reasonable. I hope he wins in Strasbourg, and I’m grateful for my tutorial in BDSM. Even if I still don’t quite understand why consenting adults whip each other for fun, I can see little harm in it.
Yet as I walk away, I feel frustrated. Never have I asked such invasive questions and had them answered so unflinchingly. Mosley has permitted me to trample over his sexual privacy, and yet has kept a more important part of himself – his emotions, his character – entirely private, hidden behind a high wall of logic and good manners.
When I get back to the office after the interview I’m asked: So what’s Max Mosley really like? I reply: I have absolutely no idea.
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