The Fake Sheikh, Mazher Mahmood, has finally been locked up after damaging the lives of many as a sleazy Murdoch desk jockey. Political editor Dr Martin Hirst says "about time".
Mahmood was a journalist of sorts. He worked for Rupert Murdoch for more than 20 years and his signature trick was to disguise himself as a wealthy Arab sheikh in order to trap his targets into making damning admissions. Mahmood was widely known as the "Fake Sheikh" and his targets included well-known celebrities or sports stars, as well as ordinary folk from all walks of life.
According to journalist and author Peter Jukes, many of Mahmood’s victims had done nothing wrong and were nothing more than fodder for his more salacious stories.
In an exclusive interview, Jukes toldIA that he is appalled that the Fake Sheikh was allowed to damage the lives of so many people while working for Rupert Murdoch.
"It is often forgotten his stings involved ordinary people who had no capacity to defend themselves — traffic wardens who fled their jobs after trumped up drug dealing scoops; immigrants seeking work in the UK entrapped by him playing the role of an immigration official."
I have written about Mazher Mahmood before. With my colleague, Roger Patching, I co-authored a standard textbook on journalism ethics (Journalism Ethics: Arguments and Cases) in which the antics of the Fake Sheikh were discussed.
I asked Roger, now adjunct professor at Bond University on the Gold Coast, for his recollections of the Sheikh’s career and how he should be remembered. Roger told me that he still uses the work of Mahmood as a case study with both good and bad aspects.
There are several ways of looking at this. Like you I think he started off with the best intentions, and did put a lot of crims away, even if he might have exaggerated the number. But then he seemed to get caught up in his own importance, and the desire to take down "the rich and famous" for no apparent reason other than embarrassing them.
While exposés like that of the Pakistani cricketers match-fixing (and no doubt many others in his early days) were justified, as was probably the story on The Duchess of York "selling" access to her former husband, I don't think the "stings" involving [former English soccer coach] Sven-Goran Erikssonand the Countess of Wessex served any real purpose other than allowing readers to chuckle at their stupidity.
In the end, the self-styled “King of the sting” himself fell as a result of his attempted sting involving the pop singer, Tulisa.
It was this last story, an attempt to get a minor celebrity to sell him cocaine that brought the Fake Sheikh undone.
Mazher Mahmood -- aka the Fake Sheikh, finally meets his match
How did the Fake Sheikh get caught?
Mahmood worked at the now-shuttered News of the World. Yes, that News of the World; the paper that Murdoch closed in a hurry in July 2011, after it was revealed NotW staff had been hacking phones and committing much more serious crimes in pursuit of a fat profit for the moral vacuum that is Rupert Murdoch.
On Friday last week, at London’s famous Old Bailey courthouse, Mahmood was sentenced to 15 months in jail. He was convicted of "perverting the course of justice". The case revolved around a typical Fake Sheikh sting involving a minor celebrity and alleged drug dealing.
Mahmood – and his driver Alan Smith, 67 – were found guilty of conspiring to pervert the course of justice by changing a police statement in relation to the 2014 drug-dealing trial of former N-Dubz singer and X Factor judge Tulisa Contostavlos.
Contostavlos and rapper Michael Coombs were initially prosecuted for supplying cocaine after being caught in an undercover Sun on Sunday sting orchestrated by Mahmood, who posed as a film producer offering the singer a movie role.
The 2014 prosecution was aborted after the judge ruled that Mahmood had plotted – with driver Alan Smith – to change Smith’s evidence about anti-drugs comments Contostavlos had made while travelling in Smith’s car. The singer’s comments undermined the whole basis of the sting that Contostavlos was a regular cocaine user.
At the drug trial, Judge Alistair McCreath told Southwark Crown Court he, Mahmood, had lied in giving evidence for the prosecution.
The Fake Sheikh was stood down by The Sun at that time and has spent the last two years preparing for his day in court last Friday, which ended in his conviction and sentencing.
Judge McCreath said he had "strong grounds" to believe Mahmood had tried to conceal his manipulation of evidence by getting his driver to change his account of his conversation with Contosavlos.
Contostavlos has always insisted that the drug sting was a case of entrapment by Mahmood. She said she was tricked into promising to arrange a cocaine deal in order to secure the film part the Fake Sheikh was dangling in front of her.
Libertarian Murdoch fans defend the Fake Sheikh
Why am I not surprised that the right-wing, pro-Murdoch website Spiked has made the moral leap into defending the Fake Sheikh and his particularly nasty style of tabloid journalism on "free speech" grounds. Spiked editor-at-large Mike Hume claims that Mahmood is being victimised by the politically-correct "mob". He is seriously damaged goods.
'... whatever anybody thinks of Mahmood and his methods, dirt-digging reporting remains a vital tool of journalism in an open society. The fall of the fake sheikh is no excuse for allowing supporters of state-backed regulation to pervert the course of press freedom.'
I wouldn’t credit Spiked with much at all; one of the senior editors there is Brendan O’Neill, who also writes about Australia from his base in the UK. He is published in the opinion columns of the Weekend Australian.
He is an apologist for Big Tobacco and a serial offender when it comes to championing the Murdoch media’s distorted views of free speech and freedom of the press.
You can read my many responses to O’Neill and the #NewsCorpse free speech fundamentalists here.
A more sensible view of the Fake Sheikh
For a more accurate view of the damage and wrecked lives resulting from Mahmood’s many stings, I made contact with a more reliable source, UK-based journalist, documentary-maker and playwright Peter Jukes.
Jukes told IA that the human, emotional and financial costs of the Fake Sheikh’s "exclusives" is "incalculable". Jukes says that most of Mahmood’s stings involved "innocent people" who’s only purpose was to be fodder to the Fake Sheikh’s ego.
"The costs of Mahmood's stings are incalculable. Mahmood claims over 200 convictions from his stings (though the real number is closer to 50). But how many of these were genuine criminals? There are at least a dozen that are being re-examined by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. The majority of innocent victims have probably disappeared, or are too traumatised to come forward. Lawyer Mark Lewis has already estimated the cost of lost earnings and reputations of high profile victims in the hundreds of millions."
Peter Jukes has been watching Murdoch for many years and has published two books on the Leveson inquiry, which investigated the ethical shortcomings of the British media and led to a culture change, the impacts of which are still being analysed.
In 2012, Mahmood also gave evidence during the Leveson inquiry. It was during these hearings that Rupert Murdoch was hit with a cream pie and his then wife, Wendy Deng, punched the pie-thrower.
Peter Jukes says it’s no surprise that Mahmood lied in the 2014 court case involving Contosavlos; the Fake Sheikh also lied during his evidence before Leveson.
"Mazher Mahmood's biggest lie during the Leveson Inquiry in 2012 was that he only worked for two years with Southern Investigations, run by Sid Fillery and Jonathan Rees, both arrested as suspect in the Daniel Morgan murder multiple times. Southern Investigations was at the heart of the "criminal media nexus" that joined the British press to underworld criminals and corrupt police. The truth is he worked with them extensively throughout the 90s. He was trained in the dark arts by murder suspects. How much more tainted can you get?"
Jukes is obsessed with the Morgan murder; but his obsession is justified. Morgan was killed in 1987 while working for Southern Investigations. The murder remains unsolved and Peter Jukes is now helping Daniel Morgan’s brother in his quest for justice. The Metropolitan Police (London’s police force) is under the spotlight in relation to the Morgan murder. As the Leveson inquiry revealed, corrupt cops from the Met were helping Murdoch’s private eyes to hack phones for the News of the World.
And Jukes has no hesitation is describing the Fake Sheikh as an agent provocateur who used illegal drugs, alcohol and money to entrap his victims in order to get a juicy scoop.
"There is no law of entrapment in the UK, unlike the U.S., so each sting has to be reviewed on a case by case basis. I believe that Mahmood was mainly an agent provocateur using techniques which would be thrown out of court as a massive "abuse of process" if used by law enforcement officials."
Peter Jukes says he still doesn’t understand why Mahmood was allowed to continue his career for more than 20 years:
"Why a very highly paid employee of News International was allowed to cheat the system for 25 years beats me."
Like Jukes, Roger Patching is not shedding any tears for Mazher Mahmood. But the professor believes the case of the Fake Sheikh will provide useful lessons for the next generation of journalism students.
I tend to paint his conviction in a positive light as perhaps being the end of the era of suspect journalistic "stings'" And that's a good thing. I use my "how would you feel" test (the conclusion from the PhD) to suggest that most people (who are not criminals) don't deserve to be treated in the way Mahmood attacked his more recent victims.
He will be a good ethical discussion point for some years to come.
According to Peter Jukes, Mahmood "floated above" the traditional editorial controls of most newspapers. He was employed by the Sunday Times, then News of the World, and then again the Sunday Times and Sun on Sunday when the News of the World was closed.
'There is a world of difference between the work of investigative journalists who operate in the public interest and the sleazy, deceptive practices of a scumbag like Mazher Mahmood'
Jukes believes he was protected from scrutiny by his close relationship to Murdoch’s powerful editorial executives.
"He clearly enjoyed a very high level of protection from Murdoch's UK publishing subsidiary. Indeed, he was given the same lawyer and legal backup as Rebekah Brooks herself. Many witnesses claim Mahmood spoke directly to Brooks, and both James and Rupert Murdoch, about his stings. So, I would say that his conviction casts a shadow over their probity, a much larger shadow than the prosecution of Brooks' former deputy Andy Coulson"
[Ed: Coulson was convicted of offences related to phone-hacking at NotW, while Brooks was not convicted and was later rehired and promoted by Murdoch.]
Under the circumstances, it is pretty appalling that Spiked – which claims to be libertarian and anti-authoritarian, but which enjoys the patronage of Rupert Murdoch – would be so clamorous in its defence of the Fake Sheikh.
The fake-sheikh verdict has added more fuel to the fire on which some want to burn the tabloid press. If anything is a "stain on our democracy" it is this attempt to sanitise dirt-digging journalism, tame the trouble-making tabloids and further curb press freedom in Britain.
Investigative journalism inevitably involves underhand tactics.
Every big investigative story down the years has involved reporters skirting and bypassing the rules, bending and breaking laws, often resulting in threats, prosecution and imprisonment.
By deliberately confusing the low-life stings of Mazher Mahmood with legitimate investigative journalism, all that Spiked is doing is providing cover for Rupert Murdoch.
There is a world of difference between the work of investigative journalists who operate in the public interest and the sleazy, deceptive practices of a scumbag like Mazher Mahmood, who were more interested in a salacious headline than championing the real interests of the reading public.
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