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How the 'Fake Sheikh' Mazher Mahmood was unmasked

Mazher Mahmood unmasked by Panorama

For 30 minutes of television, the litigation may have seemed excessive. But for John Alford, one of a number of the victims of the 'Fake Sheikh' (Mazher Mahmood) interviewed by Panorama, watching this programme must have been hugely satisfying.

Alford's life was devastated by a Mahmood sting. He went from the heights of TV fame to a prison cell via a News of the World front page. Nearly 20 years on, he has now had his say.

The BBC's much-vaunted Panorama exposing the Fake Sheikh's murky world faced enormous challenges to get to the point of broadcast: an urgent injunction, an unsuccessful attempt to seek permission to appeal that decision, a letter from the Attorney General and "new evidence" sent to the BBC in the few hours between the loss in the Court of Appeal and the proposed broadcast.

This backdrop provided extra drama, and the BBC used it to positive effect from the outset. In broadcasting Mahmood's undisguised face, we were told of his extensive attempts to prevent us from seeing these images. They made clear that their justification for doing so was to make it more difficult for him to use his entrapment techniques to lure future victims.

For Mahmood, the litigation was par for the course. In addition to his current attempt to prevent the BBC televising parts of its Panorama broadcast, he has been a witness in a number of criminal trials, civil proceedings (not least his own previous injunction attempt in 2006) and, of course, the Leveson Inquiry.

I was one of the few to see him give evidence at Leveson. The inquiry went to great lengths in accommodating his demands for privacy and security. He entered via the judge's entrance to the court accompanied by a truly enormous bodyguard who squeezed his huge frame into the seats set aside for the lawyers. His glare failed to deter probing questions from counsel.

Whilst Mahmood has always been a controversial figure, when giving his evidence before Leveson (on the first of two occasions) Mahmood remained an investigative journalist with a fearsome reputation. At that time he was reporting for the Sunday Times having been rescued following the closure of the News of the World.

Following his part in the skewering of the corrupt Pakistani cricketers (the News of the World's last great scoop) Mahmood's his stock was high and while other News of the World journalists were facing redundancy and prosecution, his employers were keen to protect him. The evidence he gave to Leveson told of the 253 criminal convictions he had brought about by way of his famous Fake Sheikh disguises.

Since then, Mahmood's stock has taken a dramatic tumble towards this week's nadir.

It was whilst at the Sun on Sunday that Mahmood turned his sights to Tulisa Contostavlos. The "drug deal" story was a significant splash.

Presumably to bolster his conviction statistics, Mahmood worked to ensure Tulisa's prosecution. The case reached trial but the trial judge dramatically ended the proceedings deeming Mahmood's critical evidence unreliable. The Crown Proseuction Service, red-faced, had to abandon not only this case, but was also made to reconsider the many cases on which it had co-operated with Mahmood. Panorama suggested that there had been an unhealthy and possibly unlawful relationship between Mahmood and police officers. The police are likely to be less amenable now.

After watching Panorama, one could see why he was so determined to stop it being aired. He fiercely contests Panorama's portrayal. Mahmood's injunction application was described by his own silk as involving "supercharged" privacy rights to protect his current image from being broadcast. He relied on Articles two (the right to life), three (the right to be protected from torture/violence) and eight (the right to privacy) of the European Convention on Human Rights and referred to cases in which notorious murderers had achieved similar injunctions to protect them from retribution.

One could see circumstances where an injunction of this type may be granted. Investigative journalists, like undercover policemen and the security services, use subterfuge to immerse themselves in the lives and activities of individuals who, if the truth was known, may well turn to violence. In Mahmood's case the court had to weigh up the risk to safety with the BBC's right to freedom of expression (Article 10) in broadcasting Mahmood's true identity.

The court heard however that Mahmood's identity is largely no longer a secret, not least because of his own publicity efforts. George Galloway also famously turned the tables on Mahmood when he was in the journalist's sights and Mahmood was powerless to stop the MP from distributing his image in 2006.

Panorama's lawyers argued that it was an important principle to show how Mahmood had misused his disguises to lure his unwitting victims into his elaborate stings, and thereby facing public disgrace on a Sunday front page. They submitted that the public have a legitimate interest in knowing who this notorious man really is. Justice Eady concluded that there was not ‘clear evidence’ that showing Mahmood’s appearance would ‘materially increase’ the risk to his safety having regard to the information about his identity and appearance already available in the public domain. The Court of Appeal agreed and the broadcast could go ahead.

Mahmood is one of the great survivors of tabloid journalism, so it would be wrong to write him off quite yet. But Panorama and the court have ensured (at last) we can all see for ourselves who this man really is.

Dominic Crossley is a partner at legal firm Payne Hicks Beach

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