Why I am out to nail Mazher Mahmood
Ex-national newspaper editor Roy Greenslade says it's time to root out underhand practices that bring the profession into disrepute
Sunday 16 April 2006
I have been accused of wanting to destroy Mazher Mahmood's career. So let me begin this journey into Mahmood's murky world by making clear what I really wish to achieve, and why.
I want to put an end to his regular use of subterfuge, the most controversial weapon in journalism's armoury. I want him to mothball the fake sheikh's robes. And I want his paper, the News of the World, to take a long, hard look at its journalistic ethics and to reconsider its editorial agenda.
The reason is straightforward: Mahmood's methods debase journalism. They often amount to entrapment and, on occasion, appear to involve the use of agents provocateurs. People have been encouraged to commit crimes they would not otherwise have conceived. As if that wasn't enough, the public interest justification advanced for such activities by the NoW is almost always highly debatable.
Let me make it clear that I am not saying that the use of subterfuge by newspapers should be outlawed entirely. But as the editors' code of practice quite properly states: "Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means."
So The Sunday Times reporter who claimed to work for a potential city academy donor in order to discover whether honours could be purchased - leading to last week's arrest of headmaster Des Smith - can point to a public interest reason for subterfuge.
Indeed, to obtain some of his stories about crime - whether posing as a sheikh or as the smooth businessman Sam Fernando - Mahmood was undoubtedly justified in using subterfuge. But it is a technique that should surely be used sparingly because it can too easily be abused. There is a fine line between the use of subterfuge and the act of entrapment.
I am far from alone in holding these views. Senior Scotland Yard officers have voiced their concerns, albeit privately. Several judges have also questioned the merits of his brand of subterfuge. Perhaps even more revealingly, so have jurors.
In a 1999 court case not given anything like the publicity it deserved, the jury took the extraordinary step of sending a note to the judge explaining that they had reached their decision to convict two men exposed by Mahmood for drug-dealing with great reluctance. They said they would have acquitted the men, one of whom was an hereditary peer, if the law had enabled them to take into account the "extreme provocation" they had been under to sell cocaine to Mahmood. The judge agreed and passed suspended sentences.
He then said: "Journalists in general, and those involved in this case in particular, should carefully examine and consider their approach to investigations where it involves no police participation."
But this was not an isolated case. Though the NoW consistently points to the (alleged) fact that Mahmood has been responsible for the jailing of 130 people, defence lawyers have regularly sought to show that their clients have been victims of elaborate sting operations.
One of Mahmood's most controversial cases was his revelation of the alleged plot by a supposed "international gang" to kidnap Victoria Beckham. I have spent a lot of time investigating this investigation. I have read all the transcripts of the video and audio tapes made by Mahmood's team. I have spoken at length to some of the defending solicitors. I have interviewed one of the alleged plotters, then a young medical student and now a doctor, an innocent whose career has suffered appallingly due to his involvement. I have travelled to Croatia to meet the man, Florim Gashi, who openly admits to having engineered the whole plot.
All of this convinced me that my initial feeling, when I read the NoW's "world exclusive" in November 2002, was correct. There was no plot. The men who were to spend seven months in jail awaiting trial were entirely innocent of that charge.
When they finally appeared for trial, the prosecution announced that it was withdrawing the charges because of the unreliability of the main witness, none other than Mr Gashi. The judge responded by calling on the Attorney-General to look into the affair, but nothing came of it. Later, when one of the gang sued the NoW for libel, he also lost. Mahmood therefore escaped legal retribution for his part in the affair.
But I was not the only one to meet Mr Gashi in Dubrovnik last September. Three Scotland Yard detectives were also there to interview him about his relationship with Mahmood. They discovered, as did I, a remarkable fact. Quite apart from acting as agent provocateur in the kidnap plot, he had played a central role in at least four other scoops under Mahmood's byline.
Was Mr Gashi - a convicted liar with a history of mental illness - so cunning that he fooled Mahmood every time? He says he persuaded people, usually immigrants from his own Albanian background engaged in petty crime, to commit high-profile crimes that would be newsworthy enough to please Mahmood and his NoW bosses.
Mr Gashi told me: "I am responsible for innocent people going to jail. I tricked them, and I'm ashamed. It's time to tell the truth." A month later, he moved to Vienna and told his story to two more detectives and to lawyers from two firms representing men featured in Mahmood's stories. Nothing has happened since and Mahmood has since added more names to his roll-call of victims by tricking Princess Michael of Kent into making some faintly embarrassing statements and fooling Sven Goran Eriksson into revealing his private thoughts.
The Press Complaints Commission has consistently ruled against journalistic "fishing expeditions", such as the use of clandestine listening devices on the off-chance of discovering some wrong-doing. Yet Mahmood's attempt to entrap George Galloway MP, and two years before that, Diane Abbott MP, were classic examples of fishing expeditions. There was no prima facie evidence against either that provided justification for the use of subterfuge.
Unsurprisingly, Mahmood's celebrity status among tabloid journalists has encouraged other reporters, within the NoW and elsewhere, to adopt similar tactics. None has dared mimic his sheikh routine but they do use his techniques. The rugby player Lawrence Dallaglio suffered from an NoW sting, as did Tom Parker Bowles.
After the former NoW editor Piers Morgan assumed the editorship of the Daily Mirror, two of his female reporters persuaded the son of the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, to buy drugs.
There, in a nutshell, is the danger of the Mahmood method. It encourages bad journalistic behaviour. It's hardly any wonder that journalists are held in such low esteem by the people they purport to represent and that the sales of the scandalous red-tops appear to be in free-fall.
I want Mahmood to clean up his act, to return to being the good reporter I know he once was. He may get fewer scoops but they will surely be more worthwhile.
Roy Greenslade is professor of journalism at London's City University and was editor of the 'Daily Mirror' from 1990-91
Keeping the faith
Mark Damazer's tinkering at Radio 4 has caused some serious consternation among its sensitive listeners. The former BBC governor Sir Richard Eyre recalls when things were done differently. "When I was a governor of the BBC [from 1995 to 2003], there were several representations from the British Humanist Association to demand equal airtime with the 'faith' squad," says Sir Richard in this week's New Statesman. "The head of radio would implore us not to poke the hornet's nest; so 'Thought for the Day' endures, like the monarchy and the House of Lords, not because of its inherent virtues or popular support, but because it's more trouble than it's worth to change or abolish it."
Murphy's law at RDF
The dust is still settling after the abrupt departure of former BBC3 controller Stuart Murphy - credited with the success of Little Britain - after just three months in the creative director's chair of production company RDF. Hailed as a wunderkind while at the Beeb, Murphy fared less well at the independent producers, responsible for Wife Swap and Ladette to Lady.
"We haven't had anything commissioned since he joined," says one disgruntled RDFer. "We used to have brilliant trailer-style presentations when we were trying to sell a new idea to a channel. When Stuart arrived, he decided he should just have his own dictated words projected on a wall when meeting commissioners. It went down terribly. He was constantly trying to hire someone from within the BBC to come and be head of a new comedy division at RDF," adds my source. "He was continually politely declined."
Goodnight from them
Usually a backwater, BBC News 24 has been hauling in some prominent presenters. On Thursday Emily Maitlis and Ben Brown were brought in and seated at the same desk. "They looked like something out of The Two Ronnies," noted one viewer. "There was some tension about who would get the limelight. Both were constantly trying to wisecrack over each other." One rolling news channel is evidently not big enough for both egos.
'Zoo' and the Zen factor
Watch out, Nuts. Anthony Noguera, the editor of its arch-rival Zoo, is taking no prisoners. The lads' mag guru was asked for his personal mantra. "Never had one," he answered, before adding worryingly: "Although 'always escalate' never did any harm to Ariel Sharon."
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