A former Attorney General has called for a review of all convictions involving evidence from the “Fake Sheikh” Mazher Mahmood, as the BBC broadcast rare images of the undercover reporter's face. Meanwhile, the fall-out from the undercover journalist’s reporting has been described as “far more serious” than the phone-hacking scandal.
Solicitor Mark Lewis, who helped expose phone hacking at News International and who is now representing some of Mr Mahmood’s victims, told the BBC’s Panorama programme: “The damage that’s caused, the damage for people's livelihoods, the amount of people sent to prison, it's a far more serious thing than phone hacking ever was.”
Mr Mahmood, who works for The Sun on Sunday, the title which replaced his former paper the News of the World when it was closed down over phone hacking, is currently suspended pending an inquiry by his employer (now known as News UK). He is also the subject of a police investigation into possible perjury charges after the judge in the collapsed trial of pop singer Tulisa Contostavlos said he may have lied. A string of cases involving evidence from Mr Mahmood have recently been dropped by the police and Crown Prosecution Service.
Former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith told Panorama the reporter’s track record – in which he boasts of having secured more than 100 convictions in a 30-year career – needs to be re-examined. “The fact that somebody who has been accused by a judge of apparently of not telling the truth may be instrumental in those convictions would certainly be a reason to look at those convictions again and to examine them to see whether they are safe.”
The programme repeatedly showed close up images of Mr Mahmood on his phone in a car. The reporter was also shown in his own covert footage as he prepared stings in hotel rooms, and in a photograph wearing his favourite disguise of an Arab keffiyeh headscarf and long robes. The journalist has spent his career hiding his identity and has been allowed to give evidence from behind a screen in court cases and at the Leveson inquiry into media abuses. He tried to use legal argument to prevent Panorama from showing his face.
The programme's presenter John Sweeney explained the editorial decision by saying: "We are identifying him tonight to make it more difficult for him to entrap people in the future." In 2002 Lord Goldsmith was asked by a judge to examine the collapsed prosecution in a supposed plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham and her children, after it emerged that Mr Mahmood had paid thousands of pounds to one of the alleged conspirators, Florim Gashi.
“I explored every possible avenue for dealing with this as I saw was a very unsatisfactory state of affairs and each avenue turned out to be a blank,” Lord Goldsmith told Panorama.
After the trial collapsed, Mr Gashi made allegations which led police to launch an investigation into Mr Mahmood, codenamed Canopus. When Mr Mahmood was interviewed under caution he was asked why he relied on people like Mr Gashi. He told detectives he got information from prostitutes and drug addicts, adding: "I've got bent police officers that are witnesses, that are informants."
The investigation into Mr Mahmood was dropped due to "insufficient evidence".
Panorama raised further questions about the relationship between Mr Mahmood and the Metropolitan Police, which is currently investigating him. The programme investigated his links with a notorious private detective agency, Southern Investigations, which is known to have had corrupt relations with police officers. One police document produced by the programme read: "Source met Maz, a News of the World reporter. On this occasion Maz was with a plain clothes officer. The officer was selling a story to Maz."
The programme also spoke with a former colleague of Mr Mahmood’s, photographer Steve Grayson, who alleged that they had set up a former glamour model Emma Morgan by persuading her to assist in a drug deal by offering her a lucrative calendar deal. The sting allegedly involved an intermediary called Billy who told the programme: “The only real criminal was Mazher Mahmood. He gave me the money to buy the cocaine.”
Mr Mahmood, who says he has never bought stories from police officers and always used legitimate methods in his investigations, has hit back at the programme, saying that Grayson holds a grudge against him and that Mr Gashi is “thoroughly discredited as a witness”. The reporter’s counsel, Justin Rushbrooke, dismissed the programme as a “hatchet job”.