Stephen Glover on the Press

Why are we protecting Mahzer Mahmood from exposure?
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The Independent Online

We all have our prejudices in life, and I admit to having a mild one against George Galloway, the Respect party MP for Bethnal Green and Bow. But it is impossible not to side with him in his fight with the News of the World's investigative reporter Mazher Mahmood, known as the "fake sheikh" on account of his passion for dressing up as an Arab.

Mr Galloway was recently taken to dinner at the Dorchester hotel by Mahmood, who on this occasion passed himself off as an Indian called Pervaiz. According to the MP, Pervaiz and a colleague encouraged him to accept illegal party funding for Respect, and invited him to make anti-Semitic remarks. Mr Galloway became even more suspicious than he already was when he noticed that Pervaiz's sidekick had a mouth full of gold teeth, a distinguishing feature mentioned in a book about journalism by Andrew Marr.

So Mr Galloway has wreaked his revenge by distributing photographs of Mahmood, who relies on his anonymity. Almost unbelievably, the News of the World took out an injunction, claiming that Mahmood had received death threats, and would be put at risk if his identity were widely known. Mr Justice Mitting rejected this specious line of argument, saying that the true purpose of the application was not so much to safeguard Mahmood as "the protection of his earnings capability and publication of his investigative journalism, and his utility to his employers in that respect".

This episode illustrates how newspapers, in defence of their own interests, are prepared to resort to measures that they decry when they are used against them. People normally take out injunctions against the News of the World, not the other way around. I am sure the paper would have been outraged if the Tory MP Boris Johnson had tried to block publication of its front-page scoop eight days ago about his new bout of alleged philandering.

Nor is it clear that Mahmood is every inch the public hero that the News of the World says he is. It boasts that he has put away about 130 criminals. If this is true, which I rather doubt, one wonders why he did not seek employment in the Metropolitan Police rather than on Rupert Murdoch's payroll. No doubt he has done good work in his time, though there is surely something in Mr Galloway's suggestion that Mahmood sometimes acts as an agent provocateur.

I certainly felt this about his recent set up of Sven-Goran Eriksson, when England's football manager reacted as many of us might, including possibly the great Mahmood himself, when offered a job. On another occasion, Mahmood was a key figure in foiling an alleged plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham and her children, but the case against the supposed kidnappers collapsed in court after it was ruled that the paper's informant, who had been paid £10,000 by the News of the World, was an unreliable witness.

The News of the World and Mahmood have been taking themselves far too seriously. The odd thing is that the rest of us connive in the ridiculous idea that he is a precious national institution whose identity must be protected at all costs. Until Mr Galloway blew the gaffe, Mahmood's picture had only appeared in The Observer, which published it in April 2001 in an apparent fit of absent-mindedness. On Friday morning, when newspapers were free to publish a photograph of the sleuth after Mr Justice Mitting's ruling, only The Guardian did so.

Perhaps editors have a nagging worry that, despite the overwhelming arguments to the contrary, publication might threaten Mahmood after all. Or perhaps, in the end, we simply look after our own.

FOR THE PAST 13 years, the George Orwell Memorial Fund and the editors of The Political Quarterly have awarded the Orwell Prize "to encourage good accessible writing about politics, political thinking or public policy". One prize goes to the author of a book or pamphlet, another to the writer of a newspaper or periodical article. The winner of the 2005 journalism prize, announced last week, was Timothy Garton Ash of The Guardian.

As every schoolboy knows, Orwell was a Lefty who did not like large swathes of the Left. As a result, the Right has partially adopted him as one of its own. Yet over the years the journalism prize has usually gone to political journalists of the centre-left. Matthew Parris of The Times was last year a rare exception.

Bernard Crick, the progenitor of the prize as well as being Orwell's biographer, says that journalists of the centre-right do not often enter. Maybe so. But is there perhaps a perpetual bias to the Left of which Orwell might not approve? Professor Crick is standing down this year as chairman of the judges, and we will see whether his successor, Jean Seaton, evinces any greater fondness for the Right.

* When Julia Hobsbawm launched Editorial Intelligence ("where PR meets journalism") last November, I grumbled in this column. Her intention is to create a database of some 1,000 members of the "commentariat", which she would sell. Nothing much wrong with that, perhaps. What was objectionable was the presence of a number of distinguished journalists on her advisory board.

Now six of them have resigned. Matthew D'Ancona, the new editor of The Spectator, and John Kampfner, his counterpart at the New Statesman, both announced last week that they were resigning from the board of Editorial Intelligence. John Lloyd, the new director of journalism at Oxford University, is also jumping ship, as is the BBC's Robert Peston.

One marvels how these people could have got mixed up with Editorial Intelligence in the first place. How could the cause of good journalism possibly be strengthened by a PR operation whose main purpose is to help companies manipulate the media? Mr D'Ancona is quoted as saying that Editorial Intelligence had become too much of a "distraction". The truth is that he and others have belatedly woken up to the fact that they had no business helping a PR organisation.

PR people and journalists have fundamentally different objectives. That is why I remain profoundly suspicious of the co-ownership of Press Gazette, the journalists' magazine, by Matthew Freud. In fact, he is the majority shareholder.

Mr Freud, whom I have never met, is one of the slickest PR men in the business. He is interested in furthering the interests of his clients, not in fearless journalism. It is perfectly true that he has put extra resources into Press Gazette. But the fact remains that his values are at odds with those of journalism - which is why we shall be watching his every move extremely carefully.

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