Masters of the dark arts

Three central players at the News of the World faced the Leveson Inquiry yesterday and defended their methods
  • @cahalmilmo

From the going rates for a celebrity "kiss and tell", to buying child pornography to trap paedophiles, to the mechanics of a good old-fashioned Fleet Street sting, the dark arts of the tabloids were laid bare at the Leveson Inquiry yesterday by a trio of their most skilled practitioners.

At the start of a week which will see former employees of Rupert Murdoch's News International take centre stage at the investigation into press ethics, the Fake Sheikh, the Wolf Man and the "Neville" named in the infamous "for Neville" email at the heart of the phone hacking scandal explained yesterday how they went about their work for the News of the World. Between them, the investigations specialist Mazher Mahmood, the former NOTW deputy editor Neil Wallis and the Sunday tabloid's former chief reporter, Neville Thurlbeck, had more than 70 years' experience at the sharp end of tabloid journalism and insisted that beyond the prurient nature of their work lay a crusade against "hypocrisy and criminal wrongdoing".


Mazher Mahmood aka the Fake Sheikh

Giving evidence in a courtroom that had been cleared of reporters and members of the public to ensure that the appearance of the high priest of the tabloid ambush would remain known to only a very few, Mr Mahmood insisted it was a fallacy that he had entrapped dozens – from hapless royals to serious criminals – using his elaborate subterfuges.

The former NOTW investigator, who now works for the Sunday Times, said his 20-year career at the former led to more than 260 "successful criminal prosecutions", including the recent convictions of Pakistani cricketers for match fixing after the publication of a story which saw him named reporter of the year in industry awards.

Mr Mahmood, speaking in clear, polished tones, said he always posed two questions when deciding if a story about a potential target was to be pursued: "Are they involved in criminality? Are they involved in moral wrongdoing?"

The reporter, whose nickname originates in his penchant for posing as a monied Arab to claim scalps including the Duchess of York, said the focus for many of his scoops, including the investigation of the model Sophie Anderton for drug dealing, was illegallity.

He said: "It is annoying, this myth of entrapment. We don't entrap people." He added: "These are people who are predisposed to commit these crimes anyway. All I am doing is providing a snapshot of what they are doing."

Mr Mahmood said he was proud that his work had led to the jailing of paedophiles, arms traders and drug dealers but added that this meant he had had to cross the line. "I have purchased child pornography, for example, which clearly is illegal, and that led to conviction. There are times when we cross the line – but the overriding factor is the public interest."


Neville Thurlbeck aka Onan the Barbarian

The former chief reporter of the NOTW, who was dismissed by News International in relation to phone hacking allegations which he denies, was at the heart of a succession of important stories for the Sunday tabloid, including the revelation of the so-called "Nazi orgy" involving the motor racing boss Max Mosley which has become a benchmark in British privacy law.

Mr Thurlbeck, who was arrested in April by police investigating the phone hacking scandal, revealed that the average payment for a "kiss and tell" which resulted in a front-page story was between £15,000 and £20,000.

But when it came to lifting the lid on an alleged affair between David Beckham and his former personal assistant Rebecca Loos, Mr Thurlbeck confirmed the fee had risen to a "six-figure" sum. The inquiry was told that checking Ms Loos' claims in 2004 had involved the journalist spending six weeks in Australia and a further five to six weeks in Spain, but there had been "huge public interest" in publishing the claims about the footballer's personal life.

Mr Thurlbeck said: "He was sponsored left, right and centre. He was always promoting himself with his family as a happy modern man. It was a wholesome image that the family cultivated and the public bought into on a massive scale, and we exposed that as a sham."

The journalist was not asked about claims made last week by another witness at the inquiry that he had been filmed naked while trying to expose the owners of a Dorset B&B who it was believed were offering "additional services". The posting of footage on the internet led to Mr Thurlbeck being dubbed "Onan the Barbarian" by colleagues, although he denied taking part in sexual activity.


Neil Wallis aka Wolfman

The former deputy editor of the NOTW, who left the paper in 2009 to pursue a career in public relations, bluntly denied that there was a Fleet Street culture of paying police or public servants for stories. He said: "I've never heard of a policeman, a civil servant or a lawyer wanting me to pay them for information."

Speaking in the gravelly tones that, along with a fierce newsroom manner, earned him his nickname, Mr Wallis said the appetite for "kiss and tells" had fallen in recent years and it was wrong to label such stories as the default option for tabloids. He said: "I remember paying £15,000 for a video of some soldiers in Iraq who had dragged some kids off the street and beaten them to a pulp. I wouldn't like you to think that all tabloid expenditure is about 'kiss and tells'."

Mr Wallis, who was arrested earlier this year on suspicion of conspiring to hack voicemails, insisted he had been offering a professional service to the Met when it employed him as a PR adviser at a time when the force was facing criticism for its original investigation of the phone hacking scandal.