What was somewhat more surprising, however, is how Mazher Mahmood, the News of the World's investigations editor, pulled off his scoop armed with a disguise that has become the most celebrated cover in the modern media: that of the fake sheikh. It is an astonishingly successful device and has helped him net some of the most talked-about stories in recent years.
The Royal Family are not the only ones to succumb. So too have actors, criminals and - until Princess Michael - most recently Carole Caplin, the friend of Tony and Cherie Blair. The inventor of the role, the shadowy Mahmood, has ambivalent feelings about his creation. "Real sheikhs have my deepest sympathies. When I display the wealth they live with every day, it exposes greed and hypocrisy," he told his own newspaper in 2001 after tape-recording a catalogue of hugely embarrassing opinions aired by the Countess of Wessex, the former Sophie Rhys-Jones. According to publicist Max Clifford, Princess Michael was the perfect target.
Mahmood's cover was that of a potential buyer for the couple's country home, Nether Lypiatt. "If you look at their situation, they were desperate to sell," said Clifford. "Who are the kind of people who have got that amount of money and who might want to buy a bit of the aristocracy? They were sitting ducks. Sophie was a far more difficult target."
The sheikh routine is well rehearsed. The white jalabia is accompanied by a flowing robe and the agal, or headdress. Then there is a special black and gold robe, only worn by members of the 25,000-strong House of Saud. Expensive shoes and a Rolex watch complete the routine, along with a Ferrari or a helicopter. He also likes to puff away on a hubble-bubble pipe as he coaxes the story out of his victim.
If the non-smoking, teetotal son of a Midlands magistrate had been a police officer, Mahmood would have a proud record. He regularly boasts of having helped secure the convictions of 134 criminals (though the Arabic disguise was rarely required to land the grim procession of low-rent paedophiles, people traffickers and villains).
His work is not without danger. Forced to inhabit a twilight world of aliases and cover stories, he refuses to be photographed. His stories are typically accompanied by a silhouette. There have also been very real threats to kill him. Colleagues who worked with him at the Sunday Times, from where he was sacked in 1989, recall him as a remote figure. Some at the News of the World who admire his results privately question his no-holds-barred approach.
It is an approach that has come under increasing scrutiny in the English courts. Radio 2 disc jockey Johnnie Walker, exposed by Mahmood as a cocaine user, was treated with unusual leniency because the court disapproved of the "sting" technique used to gather the evidence. In the case of Rhodri Giggs, the brother of Manchester United star Ryan, the trial judge took the unusual step of asking prosecutors to consider bringing charges against Mahmood for supplying drugs and illegal possession.
Most spectacularly, the case against a gang allegedly plotting to kidnap Victoria Beckham was dropped. The News of the World was outraged. But according to Mr Clifford, courts are right to treat the reporter's stories with caution. "A good story often has very little to do with reality. And I'm saying that as someone who has had 150 front pages in the last 18 months. What might make an entertaining read might not necessarily prove to be an investigative triumph," he said.
Princess Michael of Kent
Princess Michael of Kent apparently needed little encouragement to share her views on the Royal Family with the stranger she thought was a wealthy Arab prince.
Diana, Princess of Wales was a "bitter" and "nasty" woman, her former husband Charles was "jealous" of her popularity. He had merely married a "womb", she said. The Prince of Wales's wife Camilla would one day be Queen, despite the monarch and the public's ambivalence to her son's second marriage. Prince William, meanwhile was still "too young" to marry his girlfriend Kate Middleton, as was his younger brother Prince Harry and his South African girlfriend Chelsy Davy.
Although anyone with a passing interest in the Royal Family might not view these insights into the inner workings of the Windsors as particularly outrageous, the News of the World had little doubt what it thought of the woman dubbed Princess Pushy's thoughts: Treachery!
The newspaper exploited the opportunity to get to the 60-year-old Princess afforded by the sale of her 17th-century Cotswolds manor house Nether Lypiatt. All it took was a tip-off and a couple of calls to the estate agents Savills for the fake sheikh to set in place his latest sting. Donning the trademark robes, Mahmood assembled his entourage. He hired a helicopter to convey him to the Princess's £6m pile where he apparently found his quarry "falling over herself to flaunt her royalty".
The ease of it all constituted a "shocking security lapse", Mahmood wrote, while her "deeply offensive revelations" constituted an "appalling act of betrayal" to the Royal Family.
A second meeting was convened at Claridges hotel in London. This time the Princess, the daughter of Baron Gunther von Reibnitz, rode to the defence of Prince Harry over the wearing of Third Reich insignia to a fancy dress party. "But I believe if he had been wearing the hammer and sickle there wouldn't have been so much fuss made," she said.
During negotiations over the purchase of the house, Mahmood claimed the Princess attempted to convince him that it was on a par with that of Prince Charles's at Highgrove and then pleaded poverty, despite having rooms at Kensington Palace. "You know my husband [Prince Michael, the Queen's cousin] is not paid anything for all the work he does."
In a bizarre twist, she even claimed to be able to secure a white tiger, e-mailing photographs of herself feeding white tiger cubs to the reporter.
As a parting gift she presented the News of the World team with a jar of home-made jam. In what was construed as a parting shot at the Prince of Wales, whose Duchy Originals foods have proved a lucrative sideline, she said: "He doesn't make it himself - he's got factories. It's just got his name on it."
The Countess of Wessex April 2001
So convinced was the Countess of Wessex of the importance of Sheikh Maz, she bowed her head in deference as they shook hands, the newspaper reported after a week of media speculation that preceded publicationof its Sophie tapes. The setting was the Dorchester Hotel, central London. Also present was her business partner, Murray Harkin. Sophie Wessex was lured there with the prospect of managing a £20,000-a-month public relations account for a Saudi prince. Prince Edward's wife proceeded to share her views on members of the Government, the Leader of the Opposition and other issues of the day. Lampooning William Hague's appearance and Yorkshire accent, she went on to describe "President Blair" and the "frightening" tax rises and "pap budget" presided over by Gordon Brown. The Prime Minister's wife, who "hates" the countryside, continued to work as a barrister only to "keep her hand in". The Countess was forced to resign from her PR firm and prompted Buckingham Palace to announce guidelines to prevent what it described as a further "conflict of interest".
Freddie Shepherd March 1998
Relaxing in the Crescendo lap-dancing bar in the millionaires' harbour of Puerto Banus, in Marbella, Newcastle United's bosses, Freddie Shepherd and Doug Hall, believed they were talking to a Middle Eastern businessman looking to fund a foreign team. Recorded word for damning word by Mahmood on what became known as the Toongate tapes, the chairman and his vice-chairman let rip with a torrent of indiscretions. "Newcastle girls are all dogs, England is full of them," Mr Shepherd told the reporter. During a trawl of sex bars both men spoke candidly about their preferences - dismissing former Newcastle and England manager Kevin Keegan as "Shirley Temple" because of his saintly behaviour. They boasted they sold 600,000 replica shirts a year and encouraged drunkenness among fans. So sensational were their indiscretions that the newspaper made its tapes available to its readers to listen to on a phone line. Thousands took the opportunity to listen in. Mr Shepherd and Mr Hall claimed they were victims of "entrapment" and "gross deception".
John Alford August 1997
The former Grange Hill star was enjoying national celebrity as the baby-faced firefighter Billy Ray in London's Burning when he met Mahmood at the Savoy Hotel. Whathappened next was to be played out in the English legal system, all the way up to the High Court. While the actor admitted he was "technically guilty" of supplying cannabis and cocaine he maintained right up to his appeal that he was the victim of entrapment by the newspaper. The results of the sting were devastating for the star. He was immediately fired by ITV from his £50,000-a-year job with the hit show. In May 1999 he was jailed for nine months for drugs offences. During the trial, where he defended himself, Alford like many before and others to come was shown bowing to the reporter who he believed to be Sheikh Mohammed al-Kareem. The reporter had approached the actor offering the prospect of a £100,000 deal to help launch a nightclub in Dubai. Crucially for the case against him, a videotape made of the meeting showed him accepting £300 to buy Class A drugs.
David and Victoria Beckham November 2002
Mahmood's revelation that a criminal gang of eastern Europeans planned to kidnap the pop star wife of footballer David Beckham was hailed as his greatest-ever scoop. So high were the stakes that this time the reporter, working with a team of investigators, tipped off Scotland Yard's SO7 specialist kidnap unit in advance. According to the information he passed to the police, the gang was plotting to make the snatch outside the Beckhams' Hertfordshire home in six weeks and demand a £5m ransom. The reporter had infiltrated the network by feigning an interest in trading stolen goods. After a surveillance operation, the police moved in, arresting five at the Ibis Hotel in London's Docklands. The drama was captured by the newspaper's reporters and photographers. The story appeared in the following day's edition. Police confirmed the men were arrested for allegedly trying to sell items stolen from Sotheby's auction house. But the Crown Prosecution Service's case collapsed in court in June 2003. One of the alleged gang unsuccessfully sued the newspaper for libel.
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