What is it about British public figures and sex scandals? Not only do they seem to have more of them, they tend to be more picturesque, more frequent, and more overexposed than anyone else's. From the Profumo scandal in the cold war, when a British minister and a Russian spy were sharing the same call girl, to the trials of David Blunkett, the Home Secretary in Tony Blair's Labour administration, they're a regular feature of the public life in a country with an aggressive tabloid press that often is ready and eager to make itself part of the story.
Even here, though, few scandals can match the current one stirred up by the weekly paper News of the World against Max Mosley, the British president of the International Automobile Federation (FIA, after its French acronym). Over the past two weeks, the Sunday mass-circulation tabloid published claims that Mosley took part in a Nazi-themed sadomasochistic orgy with five prostitutes, some dressed as prisoners and at least one as a prison guard. Video of the encounter—reportedly taken by one of the women with a camera in her bra—shows Mosley speaking to the role-playing hookers in both German, which he speaks fluently, and German-accented English. Other images showed Mosley apparently having his head checked for lice. The newspaper posted the video on its Web site, but when Mosley sued, it was briefly taken down and then reinstated Wednesday with the permission of a British court. The Nazi charges were particularly sensitive, since Mosley, 67, is the son of Sir Oswald Mosley, the notorious British fascist-party leader and a friend of Hitler's. Exiled from Britain after the war, Mosley sent his son Max to a boarding school in Germany. Max later went to Oxford, rising to become one of the most powerful men in auto racing. He has headed the FIA, the highest governing body of motor sports, as well as a federation of the automobile associations from 130 countries, for the past 15 years.
It's another facet of British sex scandals that their subjects don't go down very easily but only after protracted exposure in the press—often as a result of something other than the original peccadillo. The Tory politician and novelist Lord Jeffrey Archer, for instance, denied charges that he had frequented a prostitute and even sued his accusers for libel only to be prosecuted years later for perjury and sentenced to four years in jail after the accusations had been proven true.
Mosley has responded furiously to the charges against him, even while apparently conceding that he was indeed the subject of the video posted by the News of the World. "Not content with publicizing highly personal and private activities which are, to say the least, embarrassing, a British tabloid newspaper published the story with the claim that there was some sort of Nazi connotation to the matter," he wrote in a letter addressed to Peter Meyer, the head of Germany's ADAC automobile club. "This is entirely false." He went on to add, "It is against the law in most countries to publish details of a person's private life without good reasons. The publications by the News of the World are a wholly unwarranted invasion of my privacy."
The News of the World responded by calling him a "liar as well as a pervert" in its edition last Sunday and publishing more allegations from the hookers it said were involved.
In addition to saying he would sue for libel and invasion of privacy, Mosley called an extraordinary session of the FIA's governing body, an expensive affair requiring representatives of car clubs worldwide to fly into Paris. That meeting is scheduled now for June 3. But in the meantime, a growing chorus of automobile clubs, manufacturers and Grand Prix racing drivers have called for Mosley to step down for the good of the FIA and Formula One racing. BMW and Mercedes were particularly tough on Mosley. "The content of the publications is disgraceful. As a company, we strongly distance ourselves from it. This incident concerns Max Mosley both personally and as president of the FIA, the global umbrella organization for motoring clubs," they said in a joint statement. Honda and Toyota expressed concern, too, with Toyota worrying particularly about "any behavior which could be understood to be racist or anti-Semitic," according to a statement from Toyota Motorsport.
Mosley issued a pointed reply to the German companies in a statement he gave the news agency Reuters. "Given the history of BMW and Mercedes Benz, particularly before and during the Second World War, I fully understand why they would wish to strongly distance themselves from what they rightly describe as the disgraceful content of these publications. Unfortunately they did not contact me before putting out their statement to ask whether the content was in fact true." He was apparently referring to the auto companies' role in supplying vehicles to the Nazi military.
Officials at the FIA did not respond to NEWSWEEK's requests for comment, and a spokesman for Mosley said he was not available to comment. A press release issued by the federation April 9 said the upcoming extraordinary general assembly of the body called by Mosley would address the press coverage "relating to his private life" and would include a vote of confidence. Judging by the public reaction so far, it's unlikely he will win it. Industry icons like three-time Grand Prix winner Sir Jackie Stewart and the former Austrian champion Niki Lauda said he should step down for the good of the sport. Motoring associations in the United States, Germany, Canada and the Netherlands have all said he should either quit or seriously consider doing so. Even the Crown Prince of Bahrain wrote to Mosley saying it would be "inappropriate" for him to attend the Bahrain Grand Prix last Sunday as a result of the scandal.
He does have some defenders. Current Grand Prix drivers have been more circumspect, and the British motoring community has mostly stayed out of the matter. Bernie Ecclestone, the powerful boss of Formula One, expressed qualified support for Mosley. "I'm happy with Max," he told the BBC. "He will know what he needs to do." And Mosley claimed in his letter to the ADAC that he had received many messages of support from the motoring community, which encouraged him to stay on the job.
Mosley's defense rests on his claim that whatever happened in that torture chamber in a Chelsea luxury apartment, there was no Nazi role-playing involved, and nothing illegal took place. Indeed the snippet of the video the News of the World released, which has been viewed millions of times worldwide by now, does not very clearly show anything explicitly Nazi in it. A High Court judge ruled Wednesday that the News of the World could not be prevented from posting it, since it had already been so widely disseminated. "It has entered the public domain to the extent that there is, in practical terms, no longer anything which the law can protect. The dam has effectively burst," Justice Eady said, according to Britain's Press Association. On the first day it was posted, 1.4 million people viewed the News of the World clip. Eady also noted that the material was "intrusive and demeaning" but that it did not seem to him to support the paper's claims of Nazi role-playing in the proceedings. "The very brief extracts that I was shown," said the judge, "seemed to consist mainly of people spanking each other's bottoms." The 90-second video, which even included part of a tea break during the proceedings, is apparently an excerpt of a longer one that the paper said it would send to every member of the FIA's governing body documenting the entire five-hour-long session.
Whatever happens to him, Mosley can take heart that a rollicking sex scandal does not necessarily spell the end of a career in public life in Britain. Another characteristic is how often the tabloids' victims seem to bounce back. After David Blunkett was forced to resign as Home Secretary following allegations that he helped his lover get a visa for her nanny from the Home Office, he later rejoined the Blair administration as transport minister. Jeffrey Archer emerged from prison with his peerage intact and published his prison diaries, as well as other books. Sven Eriksson, the Swede who was manager of England's soccer football club for five years, left after a series of heavily reported embarrassments involving a girlfriend and a mistress, and then a sting by the News of the World's "Fake Sheikh," an undercover reporter who pretended to be offering him a job to desert England after the 2006 World Cup. Eriksson is now the highly paid manager of one of the country's major soccer teams, Manchester City. Even in the Profumo scandal, at a much less forgiving time, 1963, the prostitutes involved went on to become minor celebrities.
When it comes to politicians, the tabloids have always done better in Tory administrations than Labour ones. The saying goes that Conservatives have sex scandals and Labourites tend toward money ones—possibly because the Tories don't get enough of the former and Labour doesn't have enough of the latter. Blunkett was an exception, but the accusations against him—of an affair with a married woman—were comparatively tame. When he was forced to resign from Blair's government a second time, it was over allegedly improper financial dealings. David Mellor was forced to resign from Conservative prime minister John Major's cabinet in 1992 after being hounded by the press about an extramarital affair, but he remained in politics and later even wrote a regular column for one of the tabloids that had been his worst persecutor.
Those were admittedly different times, in the pre-YouTube age. None of those earlier victims have had had to endure their exploits documented in living if somewhat blurry color for all the world to see. Surviving that will be a major feat.