It is perhaps a disguise, and a modus operandi, that has long passed its sell-by date. When George Galloway met wealthy Muslim businessman Pervaiz Khan for dinner at the Dorchester Hotel a week ago, the Respect MP claims to have smelled a rat instantly.
Clad in flowing robes, but curiously beardless, Khan "did not remotely resemble" the devout Islamist he claimed to be, says Galloway. After some small talk, he and a "business associate" named Sam Fernando began to ask "ludicrously leading questions". How might they financially sponsor a British MP? Could they fund a political party? According to Galloway, they then made a number of "offensive" remarks about Jews - even questioning the veracity of the Holocaust - clearly in the hope of extracting similarly vile comments from the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow.
All of it was a sham. Khan was none other than Mazher Mahmood, aka the "Fake Sheikh" employed by the News of the World, whose victims in the past have included Sven Goran Eriksson, the Countess of Wessex, Princess Michael of Kent and stylist to the Blairs, Carole Caplin - all fooled into making deeply compromising remarks into concealed video cameras and tapes. The real giveaway? Mahmood's constant side-kick, "bodyguard" and real-life cousin, known as Jaws, an instantly recognisable giant of a man at near seven feet tall, with a bald head and a mouthful of gold teeth. Introduced as Pervaiz Khan's driver, Jaws wanted Galloway to pose with him for a picture. Both Caplin and Andrew Marr, who interviewed Mahmood for his book on journalism, My Trade, have made mention of this "giant with the golden smile". He is pretty hard to miss.
On this occasion, according to Galloway's version of events at least, the Respect MP was not inveigled into self-humiliation, or worse, by the fakery of Mahmood. The MP has now written to both the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to inform them of this "attempt to suborn a British parliamentarian" - and to demand action, even a criminal prosecution. His appearance on Big Brother notwithstanding, the sharp-eyed Galloway is one of the most media-savvy of all MPs, and thus an unlikely victim of any tabloid sting. Neither is he likely to give up easily this new crusade against Mahmood's undoubtedly shady tactics, and his employer, the NoW. Like a terrier sinking his teeth into trouser leg, Galloway will shake and shake at his prey until he tastes flesh.
'Smooth and charming'
So who is Mazher Mahmood? And if he has finally picked the wrong target, is it now the end of the line for the Fake Sheikh?
Many think Mahmood, 43, should have packed up his jalabia long ago. Indeed, some fellow journalists - perhaps with a hint of envy at his success - are surprised that there are still people around who "fall for the old Arab get-up routine". "The real story, and the real joke," says one acquaintance, "is how rarely his victims see him coming." Within more junior tabloid circles he is something of a mythical, even awe-inspiring, figure. He is rarely seen in the office and writes his stories under a dramatically blacked-out silhouette rather than a picture byline.
Indeed, Mahmood got his first journalistic scoop as a youngster growing up in Wolverhampton by shopping his neighbours for video piracy to the NoW and a local television station. His national break was on The Sunday Times. Employed as a staff reporter, he was "smooth, charming and quick-witted", says his then boss, the media commentator Roy Greenslade. "He was very independent, and much preferred to bring in his own stories than work to the desk. The trouble was, the kind of stories he got were often on subjects that didn't really interest The Sunday Times, about fairly low-rent criminals and so on."
Mahmood was sacked from the newspaper in 1989 following an incident of "gross impropriety" resulting from a dispute over who was at fault for a mistake in a story. He left Wapping with his tail between his legs - but he wasn't gone for long.
It is surely a damning comment on the insularity of the British media that Mahmood has always claimed his Pakistani origins deflect attention from his real job.
"The only reason I'm alive," he told Newsweek magazine in a rare interview, "is because of my colour. Nobody would ever think I was a reporter. That's how you gain people's trust." Whether his colour is an asset to his work or not, he is unprepossessing in the flesh. An acquaintance, mindful of his "dead eyes, stained teeth and tubby physique", says he usually looks like "a rather shabbily dressed estate agent". He neither drinks nor smokes and has a deep willingness to undergo long periods - often abroad - in the service of the ever-demanding NoW.
He married in Pakistan five years ago. His father, who died early last year, was a magistrate in the West Midlands, but had previously set up an Urdu newspaper. Mahmood regarded him as "the father of Pakistani journalism in Britain". Mahmood's brother Waseem is a highly respected journalist who has founded a radio and TV station in Afghanistan.
After a brief spell in TV, Mazher - known as Maz - resurfaced at the NoW, where he began to specialise in the exposure of minor, but juicy, incidences of criminal activity: celebrity foibles, bent coppers, small-time drug dealing, immigration rackets.
The paper claims he has put 130 criminals behind bars and that credible threats have been made against his life, though some maintain this is simply the NoW's self-serving defence against charges of entrapment.
But it was the Fake Sheikh persona that sealed Mahmood's tabloid fame - and his estimated £100,000 salary (plus vast expenses). In order to facilitate his sheikh fakery, Mahmood and his cohorts spun an intricate web of deceit, setting up a number of sham companies and obtaining false ID documents. Their MO is always the same, says Greenslade. "They badger their subjects with phone calls and emails until they finally give in and agree to meet them."
The 'world exclusives'
Some of Mahmood's stories have been undeniably, if a little queasily, entertaining - who can forget Sophie Wessex, recorded during a meeting also at the Dorchester Hotel, calling Cherie Blair "horrid, horrid, horrid", and describing William Hague as "deformed" looking? But it was his "revelation" of a plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham, in 2002, that caused many within the press to question his activities seriously. This "world exclusive" ended pathetically with the collapse of the trial of five men charged with planning the kidnap of the England football captain's wife and the referral by the judge of the NoW's role in the affair to the Attorney General. Even now, the origins of the plot and Mahmood's part in it remain murky.
Mahmood's career invites discussion about journalistic ethics. The charge of entrapment is often levelled against him, and his tactics sit on the verge of legality. When he confronts issues that are unquestionably in the public interest - like the funding of political parties or abuse of position - his work his held in high regard, and its seedier side disregarded.
"The Wessex entrapment was entirely defensible, because she was in PR and married into the Royal Family," says Peter Cole, The Independent on Sunday's media commentator. "She was shown to be exploiting that relationship which Royals go out of their way to say they never do."
The PCC similarly ruled that Caplin's name-dropping of Tony Blair to her other clients had been a legitimate subject for Mahmood to investigate.
"Usually the ends are justified," says Cole. "The argument would be, if there was no other way of getting the story, that's the justification for it."
However, when Mahmood chooses a target less worthy of such attention, his style of journalism comes into question.
The jury that sat in the trial of the Earl of Hardwicke, stung by Mahmood for selling cocaine in 1998, said that had the law allowed them to acquit him under "extreme provocation", they would have done. Hardwicke was given a very lenient two-year suspended sentence.
Yet most of his victims do not inspire instant popular sympathy. Rather, the biggest threat to Mahmood's continuing employment as the Fake Sheikh is surely, and ironically, his increasing fame. "When I checked my diary and found the dinner was at the Dorchester," says Galloway, "my suspicions swiftly deepened." Media commentators do not think that Mahmood will go away, however. Like the Scarlet Pimpernel, he will simply change costume.
The Targets: You know when you're Mazhered
"Sven is really angry they have done this in a World Cup year"
Athole Still, Eriksson's agent, after the England coach said he'd manage Aston Villa
"You go into shock for a while, and you need the time to reflect and get a measure of what's happened"
Carole Caplin, after she was nearly duped into talking about the Blairs
"It is like a hall of mirrors. You become unsure of the provenance of every call and letter"
Diane Abbott, MP, offered cash for questions in Parliament
"As soon as money changed hands, I went straight to the police station"
John Fashanu, footballer, after being offered cash to fix a game
"The 'News of the World' is more powerful than we thought. They have something on everybody"
John Alford, 'London's Burning' actor, jailed for supplying drugs to Mahmood
Judy is readjusted
Richard Madeley was providing rather gentlemanly support for his wife, Judy Finnigan, when they were presenting last week's British Book Awards ceremony. Perhaps fearing a repeat of the National Television Awards, where Judy's dress fell open to reveal her cleavage while she was on stage, Richard was keeping a close eye on her décolletage. "Every time there was an interlude film for the audience to watch, Richard would lunge towards her and pull her dress up over her bust," says one blushing observer. "She was very tolerant and just stood there being adjusted, like a child having its face wiped with a spitty hanky."
Gushing praise for the Barclay brothers poured forth from Michael Winner's quill in his restaurant column for The Sunday Times last week. Reviewing the Ritz, Winner wrote: "The Barclay brothers, who own it, should be proud. They've preserved the finest dining room in London." It was interesting timing, given that sister paper The Times is about to confront the Barclay brothers in a libel trial in France. But this was not a case of Winner playing the corporate man. "I have never met the Barclay brothers," he says, "but they made a very generous donation to my National Police memorial."
David Smith, the economics editor of The Sunday Times, has written a book entitled Free Lunch (as in the expression "there's no such thing as a free lunch") to explain the dismal science to the masses. But, evidently, he has been a little too clever. "A lot of bookshops appear not to stock it, but then I realised they included it in the cookery section," says Smith. His books sit snugly next to Smith, Delia.
This joke's on George
*** As already discussed in these pages, George Galloway commended himself for his "well-honed sense of smell for rats" when it came to sniffing out that he was being set up by the News of the World's Mazher Mahmood last week. But he wasn't quite so astute when the NOTW's sister paper, The Sun, set him up on Valentine's Day. Reporter Caroline Iggulden sent him a bouquet of roses with a message claiming she was a secret admirer. She included her mobile number, which George promptly rang to set up a date.
Last with the news
The Telegraph's marketing department has been sending out a promotional flyer advertising a special subscription deal for the daily and Sunday papers. Gracing the skyline alongside John Bryant is one Sarah Sands, who was given her marching orders from The Sunday Telegraph four weeks ago. "There's new stuff coming out this Monday which will be up-to-date," promises a humbled marketing department.
Sands for Associated?
And still on the subject of Ms Sands, informed sources suggest that Paul Dacre, editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail, is among those anxious to secure her services. Sands was uncharacteristically reticent when we invited her to discuss a possible return to Associated Newspapers, where she began her Fleet Street career.
We're shocked, Jeremy
Radio 2's God-fearing Jeremy Vine hosting the Sony Radio Awards, enlivened the evening by recalling a letter from a listener warning of a scam in a Tesco car park. Apparently, two scantily clad women performed oral sex on the man while rifling his wallet. The punchline was that he was robbed several times in one week. What would Jimmy Young have said?