The Fake Sheikh and Leveson – for reference

Another guest post to compliment the two by Joe Public, this time by occasional contributor and Leveson-expert Mr Ceebs – crossposted at Bellingcat

Several places have commented on things that Mazher Mahmood said in front of the Leveson Inquiry, but he was mentioned quite a bit more than that. In light of the collapse of the Tulisa Contostavlos trial it’s time we ran across all the other mentions in the evidence, some positive, some not so positive. Most of these are slightly large, and have to be to provide a level of context. The numbers at the beginning of paragraphs are the line numbers where individual questions or responses start, other line numbers have been deleted for space and readability reasons. I haven’t included his own evidence, as that is easy enough to find on the website. Here and here

First up lets look at what Alistair Campbell had to say. (starting on p69 of his evidence)

14 Q. You then comment on the use of subterfuge and the activities of the News of the World’s then investigations editor, Mr Mazher Mahmood, who has now moved across to the Sunday Times, has he not?
18 A. Mm-hm.
19 Q. You are concerned about certain aspects of what he does, and we have collected for you some materials under tab 7.
22 A. Yes.
23 Q. These all come from pieces in the Guardian —
24 A. The problem with a lot of these stories is that they’ve been removed from the News of the World website.
1 Q. Yes.
2 A. So in researching some of this, the only place I could find anything reliable on it was actually to use material published in other newspapers about it. Q. The first example you give is directly under tab 7.
6 It’s the Earl of Hardwicke case.
7 A. Yes.
8 Q. To be clear about this, it did result in a conviction, given concerns about the way in which the evidence was obtained, the judge imposed a suspended sentence; is that right?
12 A. Yes.
13 Q. And the judge said — this is his Honour Judge Timothy Pontius: “Were it not for that elaborate sting, you would not, I accept, have committed these particular offences.”
18 A. Yes.
19 Q. You draw attention to that. My understanding of the criminal law is that the agent provocateur defence is not a defence, however it’s a factor which can be taken into account –
23 LORD JUSTICE LEVESON: It depends who is doing it, Mr Jay. The decision of the House of Lords in a case called Loosely. I’m pleased to demonstrate some knowledge.
1 MR JAY: Not generally a defence.
2 A. The other thing you might want to look at though is the PCC code: “Clandestine devices and subterfuge. The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices or by intercepting private or mobile calls, messages or emails…” et cetera, et cetera. And of course it goes on to say: “… unless there’s a clear public interest.” Now in some of these he might be able to argue that. The reason I put all of these in is I think some you could argue the public interest but the vast majority you couldn’t. But they did it routinely. And proudly. That was what made this guy’s name.
16 Q. Which of the ones do you feel would clearly not be in the public interest, the ones you’ve drawn attention to? Rather than my going perhaps invidiously through all of.
20 A. I can’t see much in the first one. In the second one, the one about the snooker player, if you read the — the World Snooker Body did its own investigation. If you read the conclusions of that, you’d be hard-pressed not to realise that actually this was — this guy was sort of only doing it because he was pushed into it because71 of the circumstances there and he was trying to get out of the room, and I think that’s what the Snooker Body accepted.

Next we have Peter Burden, author of a book “News of the World? Fake Sheikhs and Royal Trappings“, who was questioned on the contents of his book and the associated interviews and investigations. (p13 here)

12 Q. I’ll come back to that issue, if I may. May I ask you about the chapters in your book which address Mr Mazher Mahmood, who we’re hearing from next week. Your view, I think, is that virtually all of his stories are unethical. Have I correctly understood it? A. I’m not saying that all of them are, no. I think especially in the early days he was a fairly genuine reporter, but as times went on, it seems to me, having looked at a lot of his stories over a long period of time, that it slowly became easier for him to take the bare bones of a story, or the mere scintilla of a story, and find circumstances in which he could turn it into a much bigger story. The most obvious case was — there were two obvious cases, specifically the Beckhams again.

13 He claimed that they had foiled an attempt to kidnap Victoria Beckham. When it came to court, which it eventually did — and I might say that quite a lot of people were in jail for quite a long time awaiting trial — it turned out that there were no such case at all. These were a group of people who had discussed it and they had recorded — Mazher Mahmood’s agent provocateur, who was a chap called Florim Gashi, an Albanian who used to bring stories to him, to whom he gave 10,000 quid for this particular one, recorded them in a club where they used to go and play snooker, saying, “Oh yes, I know what we could do for a bit of money, we could kidnap the Beckhams”, in the same way that you might say you might win the lottery. I mean, there was no serious intent there at all. It was on the basis of that recording alone, which was entirely speculative and not at all serious and actually had no basis in anybody’s real plans whatsoever, that the arrests were made and the case was brought. mean, there was ultimately no evidence whatsoever of any kind of conspiracy to kidnap these people, which must have been frightening for the Beckhams themselves, because I think their children were involved, and frightening for other people, thinking — every time there’s a story like this comes out, they think, “Oh, this could happen to me”, but it was based on nothing at all other than Mazher Mahmood’s inventiveness.

3 Q. You were going to mention one other story. That was the first of the two. A. There was another story about a material called red mercury, which nobody seems to know what it is, that was allegedly being imported by a wheeler dealer in London and was going to be used for bomb-making purposes. Well, the stuff was never found. There was no end-user. The Mr Big that Mr Mahmood was constantly writing — all his stories seemed to feature a man called Mr Big, in this case a man from Saudi Arabia, which he quoted as being “a hotbed of Al-Qaeda”, in order, you know, to suggest that it was a terrorist thing, and he explains that Mr Big from Saudi Arabia was also sympathetic to Muslim causes. Well, presumably, Mr Big, if he came from Saudi Arabia — it is a Muslim area, so it’s not unreasonable. But it’s all these little weasel words that get inserted into the stories to give a suggestion of fear and possible danger, based in this case on absolutely nothing at all, and once again people were locked up, awaiting trial, on remand and the cases almost instantly. And yet no redress was put on the paper or Mazher Mahmood himself for this tremendous waste of public time and money. And what is more, if I may add, at the same time, talking of that kind of thing, on many instances he’s used people buying cocaine or being prepared to procure cocaine for him and he has produced funds, presumably from petty cash — he’s been asked about this in court — to buy cocaine in order to propagate a sting so that he can then go back and write a stories about how Johnny Walker, for instance, or the Earl of Hardwicke, or several other individuals were prepared to buy him cocaine, usually under quite a lot of duress from the fake character that he was playing at the time. And curiously, he’s never been charged with the illegal purchase of cocaine, although there are no legal grounds on which he can do this to perpetrate a sting.
15 LORD JUSTICE LEVESON: What’s the most recent of these stories, Mr Burden?
17 A. Jodie Kidd, I think probably about three or four years ago, he persuaded to go and buy cocaine for him and that was put up as a video online. I think it might have happened since this book was last published. But you will find that there is a case where Jodie Kidd was set up to go and provide him with some cocaine.
23 MR JAY: It’s page 210 of your book.
24 A. Oh, it is there? It must have happened just before I published this edition then. I apologise. So that was in 2009, I think. I can’t recall if there have been more since then.
3 Q. I think it’s right to say, Mr Burden, that you remain sceptical about the Pakistani cricketers issue, which of course led to a conviction recently?
6 A. Yes, it did. I’m puzzled by that. I took the view almost the minute I saw that video on their website that there was something odd about it, because I knew that the John Higgins story, the story of the snooker player apparently taking a bribe, had fallen down because the video evidence had been changed by Mazher Mahmood and his operatives, and that was acknowledged What was odd about the video that was put up on theNews of the World website was there were instances where you simply couldn’t see the mouth of the man who was supposed to be doing the speaking. It was a fellow called Mazher Majeed, who was the agent between Mazher Mahmood and the cricketers, allegedly, and I opined that this video could easily have been made, and that’s what it seemed to me.Having said that, Mohammad Amir, the youngest of the bowlers, has — did plead guilty and I find that puzzling, but I dare say there’s reasons for that. Nevertheless, the point is there was no actual crime there. There was nobody going to go and have a bet on17 those no-balls. There was nobody going to benefit from it. It was simply Mazher Mahmood setting these people up, putting pressure on them, through Mazher Majeed, to do these no-balls, if they did indeed do them — I suppose I must accept that they’ve been found guilty and perhaps they did, but there was nevertheless no clear evidence that anybody was going to benefit from that particular activity, from that particular crime, so it was, in a sense, a non-crime. It was a non-story. The whole event was set up by Mzher Mahmood to get these people, or to show that these people were prepared bowl a no ball when asked and they seem to have satisfied the jury that that was the case. I have to say that that didn’t satisfy me.
15 LORD JUSTICE LEVESON: Do you have any expertise in the area beyond having looked at the material?

17 A. I wasn’t able to look at the raw material because obviously they weren’t going to let me have it and indeed I did put up this opinion online and was asked by Messrs Farrer to take it down, which I did, because I couldn’t get my hands on the original material. But I would say that after the first time I made reference to it, some of the material did come down, the more doubtful-looking material. Whether that was a coincidence or not, I can’t say.

Next a short positive comment from Matthew Bell, chairman of National Association of Press Agencies (p36 here)

23 MR BELL: Yeah, I mean, I — not so much a specific point. I think I would add a general appeal that — I heard a lot of talk about tabloid journalism. I mean, I strongly feel that there are some very, very good journalists who you would classify as being tabloid journalists and I just hope that whatever measures are decided don’t drive away or drive underground or prevent the type of investigative journalism of people like Mazher Mahmood, for instance, out of the business, because I think it would make the media a poorer place.

And a positive comment from John Witherow (p31 here)

19 Q. Right. Maybe we should wait until others tell us more about that, if it’s relevant, but the circumstances in which he was, as it were, taken back following the demise of the News of the World, 10 July 2011 — we know that Mr Mahmood is now writing for the Sunday Times. Why?
25 A. Because I think Mr Mahmood is an exceptional journalist. He’s proved himself over many years in exposing criminality and the stories already he’s done for us have been excellent.

Dick Fedorcio (p 111 here) a nothing statement really, mentioned in passing, but included as it’s with the Met’s press officer

22 Q. Were you dealing with particular individuals at the News of the World, such as the crime reporters?
24 A. Sometimes the crime reporter, sometimes Neil Wallis as deputy editor. Sometimes the news desk, News editor. On one occasion, I think I dealt with Mazher Mahmood.

Neil Wallis (p48 here) praises Mahmood quite extensively

19 A. It depended. There were a variety of different occasions — there was the so-called dirty bombs story, that as soon as we got this allegation, we had no idea whether this stuff — it was called red mercury, butthere was a suggestion that a terrorist was interested in purchasing this sort of stuff. We had no idea whether it existed or not, so it was something we felt we couldn’t take a chance with and so we went to the Met and we went to the anti-terrorist branch and our reporter, Mazher Mahmood, as it was on this occasion, effectively became — they worked for the Met throughout it.
6 Q. When you were carrying out undercover investigations, did you inform the police about them?
8 A. When it came to the point — if we felt it was relevant and that there was a criminal aspect to it, we would generally inform them as we were about to publish.
11 Q. Right. Of course, in one sense you were duplicating work the police should perhaps better be doing; is that not right?
14 A. Well, you know, we’re journalists.
15 Q. I’ve been asked to put this to you: how did you ensure that the victims were protected, both in terms of the crime being committed upon them and in any exclusive by your newspaper?
19 A. The victims of our investigation, do you mean? people we were investigating?
21 Q. No, the victims of the crimes, I think.
22 A. Well, the crimes would usually be — well, for the two examples we have there, we protect the victims, as you put it, by involving the police and by involving Social Services.
20 A. Two things come into that, really. One, when you’re at the level of the News of the World, we’re generally pretty experienced in this, so we knew what we needed to be looking for. But secondly, we would, as often as possible, liaise with the police and, as I said — the great example being the dirty bomb plot, the woman selling the virginity, the woman selling the baby, et cetera, et cetera — the police would make it very clear to us what they needed as evidence and how that evidence would need to be collected. So we would take that advice, together with our own experience — and I think you’ve had Mazher Mahmood in here, whose proud record I think is that he has put away over 200 criminals, often in very dangerous circumstances. You know, you do that by making sure that (a) you know what you’re doing and (b) that you liaise properly with the police.

He is mentioned to Andrew Grice in passing as an example of a type of journalism (p70 here)

18 Q. You then go on to set out quite a large section on how important the press is and the very good things that the press have done over the years, which we don’t need to read out. You go on to say: “However, new techniques which have been used by the press do not always see the end justify the means.” You touch on one particular technique, which is the technique of, you say, stings or agent provocateur. Can I just clarify: here you are talking about political players being the subject of such stings, rather than the sort of Mazher Mahmood-type investigations; is that right?

Colin Myler (p29 here) mentions him in a discussion of the papers financial control systems.

12 Q. Yes. There are also payments for quite expensive sting operations people such as Mazher Mahmood were carrying out; is that right?
15 A. Yes, but that would be a different budget. It would — you know, Mazher’s operation was sort of almost — not necessarily ring-fenced, because you didn’t know from one year to the next what kind of operations he would be on, but in my view it didn’t cater for that. I think you heard from his testimony a lot of the time sources for his information were longstanding sources that he’d known for a long time. With the exception, for example, of the spot fixing cricket scandal, where we had an outlay of a significant sum to the fixer, his operation was again agreed with whoever he was working to and with for the source of the information and what it made.

And finally A discussion of the Surveillance of committee members in the evidence of Tom Watson (p39 here)

2 Q. Apart from what the Inquiry knows already, can you enlighten us about what the purpose was underlying the surveillance?
5 A. Well, Neville Thurlbeck, on a number of occasions, alleged that there was an attempt to gather information on committee members in order to — he uses the word “smear”. Effectively, he’s alleging a conspiracy to blackmail members of the committee. During our inquiry, the final inquiry we recently published, we tried to get to who was commissioning the surveillance of MPs and the research done on MPs and couldn’t quite get to that point with the company. We were told that their own internal investigations were continuing. But as part of that process, there was a disclosure of an email trail that is mentioned in this submission.
17 Q. Can I ask you, please, about — level with the lower hole punch on 05560, just expand on this, where you say: Recent disclosure from the company shows that the covert surveillance was commissioned by Mazher Mahmood with someone called Conrad acting as an accomplice.” you summarise that for us?
23 A. Yes, there’s an email trail between Mazher Mahmood where he actually alleges I was having an affair. It’s not true, obviously. And he has an email conversation with a number of colleagues — James Mellor and Ian Edmondson — where they are putting together a team conduct covert surveillance, and so they commission Derek Webb and take him off the job that he was on before he followed me and then he, Mahmood, says he goes down to the party conference and that he was taking Conrad. I don’t know who Conrad is, but he’s mentioned in the emails as being part of this.

It remains to be seen if those who praised his skill and technique in investigating members of the public distance themselves. If it turns out that there is actually a proveable pattern of invention, will he become a journalistic pariah in the way that those journalists who have been caught in acts of plagiarism, and driven from the profession? Or will it all be excused as he was only preying on the little people? Time will tell.

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2 thoughts on “The Fake Sheikh and Leveson – for reference

  1. Pingback: Other dark arts at the News of the World – Fake Sheikh investigated by police just before Phone Hacking operation | Live Tweeting the hacking trial

  2. Pingback: More dark arts at the News of the World? Panorama investigate the Fake Sheikh | Live Tweeting the hacking trial

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