The Fake Sheikh's downfall: How undercover reporter Mazher Mahmood stung himself in Tulisa trial
So the Fake Sheikh – the ‘King of the Sting’ who boasted about how many ‘villains’ he’d exposed and put behind bars – is now exposed as a criminal himself and is staring at a substantial jail stretch.
It wasn’t just a bad day for Mazher Mahmood personally, but for his News UK employers who are set to face a flood of civil actions from previous targets of the Fake Sheikh’s elaborate sting operations.
The downfall of the Fake Sheikh came at the Old Bailey with his conviction (along with his long-time driver Alan Smith) for perverting the course of justice by tampering with evidence in the collapsed trial of the singer and former X-Factor judge, Tulisa Contostavlos. The singer had been accused of arranging for Mahmood to be sold £800 of cocaine – the culmination of an extraordinarily protracted sting the Fake Sheikh had staged for a Sun on Sunday splash in May 2013.
Tulisa had been flown to Hollywood and Las Vegas and then plied with drink at London’s Metropolitan Hotel as Mahmood, posing as multi-millionaire film producer ‘Samir Khan’, who told her he was lining her up for a star role alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in a major movie.
It was a classic Fake Sheikh operation that turned sour when a ‘hyper-drunk’ Tulisa and two equally intoxicated associates revealed she was anti drugs as Mahmood’s driver Smith drove her home to Hertfordshire.
Her anti drugs remarks were included by Smith in an initial police statement which he then tried to change after the driver discussed it with Mahmood, sent him a copy of his police statement – facts that Mahmood lied about at a pre-trial hearing.
Given the strength of the prosecution case, it was no big surprise when the Old Bailey jury returned its guilty verdict – although I’d be surprised if the Fake Sheikh doesn’t lodge an appeal.
His case almost certainly wasn’t helped by his and his co-accused’s decision not to go into the witness box to defend themselves against the charge of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
But the fall out from Mahmood’s downfall isn’t likely to end with the jury’s verdict and the judge’s planned sentencing later this month, with a prison sentence looking virtually certain.
Apart from the slew of civil actions News UK is braced to face, the Crown Prosecution Service has already dropped a string of live criminal cases based on the Fake Sheikh’s stings and in which he was scheduled to be a star prosecution witness with another 25 past convictions, largely founded on his evidence, now under review. Meanwhile the Criminal Cases Review Commission is currently reviewing six cases involving celebrities convicted following Mahmood’s undercover role.
Doubtless, Hacked Off and other critics inside and outside Parliament will seize on the Fake Sheikh’s downfall to attack undercover journalism and sting operations. But that, I argue, would be a bad mistake. For every bad sting, like Tulisa’s, and some other discredited Mahmood operations, (including the collapse of a trial of men set up on a phoney Victoria Beckham kidnap fiasco) there are legitimate public interest stings, most recently the Daily Telegraph’s expose of Sam Allardyce and other football figures. And, lest we forget, the Fake Sheikh himself still deserves credit for the undoubtedly public interest sting that exposed spot-fixing by three Pakistani test cricket stars who ended up behind bars themselves.
At this point let me declare an interest. Mahmood once worked for me when I was deputy editor of the News of the World and he was a relative new boy. At that time, obsessed with investigative journalism, Mahmood was cynical about celebrities and determined (with considerable success) to expose bent police officers, drug smugglers, illegal arms dealers, passport forgers et al.
It was much later when I was editing the rival Sunday Mirror that I witnessed the steady change of the once eager, celebrity deriding undercover journalist, into someone revelling in his own Fake Sheikh celebrity persona and largely targeting hapless showbiz stars, naive minor royals and hard-up ex-soap actors into various indiscretions, some criminal, some merely embarrassing or humiliating.
But such was the Fake Sheikh’s questionable ‘success’ you sensed that those who should have been supervising him closely allowed him to run his own ‘empire’, rejoicing in the circulation boosts and spin-off publicity across rival papers and broadcasting that he was delivering. In another sense, to be charitable, Mahmood’s once genuinely driven desire to expose legitimate wrongdoers was eclipsed by the tabloid world’s growing appetite for ‘sleb scandals.’
It was a saga that saw Mahmood segue into seeing himself – complete with his flowing Arab robes disguise – as a bigger celebrity than many of those he was hell-bent on setting up. Even to the extent of arriving daily at the Old Bailey with his face hidden by a hood, despite the fact that every media outlet no longer has much compunction in using full face pictures of him and disregarding his claims that he’s a prime target for hitmen and criminals he’s put behind bars.
Apart from the Victoria Beckham 'kidnap' case collapse, the other more serious case involved a 'set up' in which a group of alleged 'terrorists' planned to create a 'dirty bomb'. The trial collapsed on the grounds that Mahmood had been the 'agent provocateur' behind the idea. Both cases raised serious question marks over his modus operandi, but these didn't dim his career star or stop Scotland Yard, with whom he'd developed a controversially close relationship, from placing a certain (PR driven?) reliance on him.
At one point Mahmood told Lord Justice Leveson, to the judge's clear contempt, that his creed was that the 'ends always justify the means'. It was a Leveson Inquiry appearance – which indulged Mahmood's demand for anonymity by banning cameras – full of the boastful, hubristic style that characterised his later career when he claimed, under oath, that more than 200 villains had been convicted as a result of his work. Further investigations showed this to be a considerable exaggeration.
Solicitor Mark Lewis, who represented some of the highest-profile phone-hacking victims of the News of the World, contended after the Old Bailey verdict that the Fake Sheikh case was "far more serious" than the hacking scandal. "Although there are far fewer victims, in terms of ruined lives, people wrongly imprisoned, careers destroyed and homes lost, the damage is much greater."
That, I suspect, will be a thought held close too by Judge Gerald Gordon when he sentences Mahmood on 21 October and represents bad news for the self-proclaimed King of Sting.
After the verdict News UK, which suspended Mahmood on full pay after the collapse of the Tulisa trial, said it was "disappointed" by the outcome of the case but declined to comment further. With at least 18 civil claims looming, it has a tricky decision to make on whether to keep him on the payroll and fund the appeal I'm certain Mahmood will want to launch.
Sources tell me that, apart from planning a likely appeal, the Fake Sheikh's legal team will argue against a prison sentence on the claim his life would be in danger there.
But for those celebs and naive royals on the receiving end of the Fake Sheikh treatment, they will be raising a toast to his downfall tonight, and floating in fresh calls to their own legal eagles.
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, former editor of the Sunday Mirror and deputy editor of the News of the World. He is also a co-author of the book, After Leveson.