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

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst - High Wycombe - £30,000

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst role...

Guru Careers: Talent Manager

£30-35k (P/T - Pro Rata) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienc...

Sauce Recruitment: New Media Marketing Manager - EMEA - Digital Distribution

£35000 - £45000 per annum + up to £45,000: Sauce Recruitment: The Internation...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing / PR / Social Media Executive

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A thriving online media busines...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor