Has the UK’s ‘Fake Sheikh’ finally been dethroned?

The "Fake Sheikh" is said to play on the greed or crass ambition of his targets to lure them into criminality or headline-grabbing indiscretions.

The “Fake Sheikh” is said to play on the greed or crass ambition of his targets to lure them into criminality or headline-grabbing indiscretions.

You can’t cheat an honest man – or so the saying goes.

Just ask newspaper reporter Mazher Mahmood – aka the “Fake Sheikh” – who, over the last 30 years, has mounted a string of stings on celebrities, criminals and politicians alike.

Mahmood is said to play on the greed or crass ambition of his targets to lure them into criminality or headline-grabbing indiscretions.

With deception as his key modus operandi, Mahmood’s ruses have involved complex back stories, fake websites, and seemingly endless resources to pay for first-class flights or showy hotel suites.
A colorful array of disguises – including, famously, the robes of a rich Arab “sheikh” – completes the picture.

In 2010, for example, Mahmood posed as a wealthy businessman as a pretext to meet hard-up royal Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York. Unaware he was a journalist, Ferguson asked for about $850,000 for access to her ex-husband Prince Andrew, causing sensational newspaper headlines and reportedly causing tensions in the royal household.

Yet despite hundreds of scoops to his name, and having earned the title “Reporter of the Year” at the British Press Awards, the “Fake Sheikh” faces the prospect of hanging up his trademark robes for good.

The veteran undercover reporter was this week suspended by The Sun on Sunday, his current employer, after the dramatic collapse of a court case prompted by one of his exposés.

In June 2013, the newspaper ran a front-page story headlined “Tulisa’s cocaine deal shame,” in which Mahmood exposed singer and former X Factor judge Tulisa Contostavlos for having allegedly helped orchestrate a drug deal. Mahmood posed as a wealthy film producer in gaining access to her, offering her $3 million to star in a film, purportedly alongside Leonardo DiCaprio.

Yet the Tulisa trial this week collapsed after it emerged that Mahmood had attempted to persuade a witness to change his evidence, and then lied about it to the court, drawing condemnation from the judge.

With Mahmood now facing a possible perjury investigation, the future of his long and controversial career hangs in the balance. It has also prompted renewed questions over his journalistic practices, and prompted many to ask: Are the people he “cheats” actually honest individuals and victims of entrapment?

Checkered career

Even some of Mazher Mahmood’s fiercest critics – and he has many – do not dispute that he has a fine nose for a story.

At the tender age of 17, Mahmood pitched his first story to the News of the World, the newspaper that closed in 2011 in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. Mahmood bought his first “Fake Sheikh” robe in 1984, and used it in uncovering a prostitution ring at a hotel in Birmingham, UK.

So began a 30-year career of undeniably sensational scoops, in which Mahmood built his reputation as fearless reporter who set his sights on everyone from royals and celebs to drug dealers and triad gangs.

One of his most successful stings was as in August 2010, when Mahmood posed as an Indian businessman to lure two Pakistani cricketers into allegedly fixing matches. Salman Butt and teammate Mohammad Asif were accused of receiving money to ensure no-balls were deliberately bowled at a specified time in the fourth test against England at Lord’s in 2010.

In September 2005, the “Fake Sheikh” donned his famous Arab robes to secretly record Princess Michael of Kent, who was heard saying that the late Diana, Princess of Wales was a “bitter” and “nasty” woman. Mahmood reportedly even hired a helicopter as part of his elaborate deception.

Birmingham-born Mahmood, aged 50, has claimed that his articles have led to 253 successful criminal prosecutions – but one law firm puts the number at 134, according to The Guardian.

One such conviction came after an August 1997 story in which Mahmood dressed as an Arabian prince in fooling actor John Alford into supplying him cannabis and cocaine, while being secretly filmed. Alford was jailed for the crime in May 1999, and served six weeks of a nine-month sentence.

Yet Mahmood’s scoops have led to several other, disastrous court trials. In November 2002, he exposed an alleged $8.5 million plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham, the wife of footballer David. A subsequent case was thrown out of court after it emerged that The News of the World – where Mahmood then worked – had paid $17,000 to the prosecution’s key witness, a convicted criminal.

Another failed court case came after Mahmood’s September 2004 exposé of an alleged terrorist plot on London. Posing as a Muslim extremist, Mahmood pretended to sell “red mercury,” a fake radioactive material, to three men who were allegedly intent on building a “dirty bomb.” The men were later acquitted in a trial, and the judge criticised the News of the World for not checking the story’s credibility.

‘Sure-footed operator’

Yet, Mahmood survived all these cases, and during his career has successfully landed a string of jobs on tabloid newspapers and two stints on the respected Sunday Times broadsheet. He emerged similarly unscathed from the phone hacking scandal, which led to the closure of the News of the World and the arrest of several of his former colleagues.

But given the outcome of the Tulisa trail, has the “Fake Sheikh” finally come unstuck?

Dominic Ponsford, editor of Press Gazette, said he was surprised at this week’s events.

Mahmood “has been involved in putting a lot of people behind bars… He’s always been such a sure-footed operator,” Ponsford said. “So it’s quite a surprise to see him slip up in the witness box like he did this week.”

And what a slip-up it was. The judge presiding over the Tulisa trial said there were “strong grounds for believing Mr Mahmood told me lies,” according to The Guardian.

Tulisa reportedly feared that Mahmood was trying to persuade her to have sex in return for a film role, and also suspected he had spiked her drinks during the sting operation – with the latter claim also made by some of the reporter’s previous targets.

Entrapment, or fair game?

After the trial was thrown out of court, Tulisa hit out against the “disgusting entrapment” used by Mahmood in his reporting – highlighting a long-standing debate over the journalistic practices employed by the controversial reporter.

Many of the techniques used by Mahmood are used by both tabloid and broadsheet journalists in the UK, said Ponsford.

“It’s a classic sting – you play on someone’s greed in order to get them interested,” he said. “Some people would argue that you can’t con an honest man.”

Despite that, the methods used should be proportionate, Ponsford argued.

“The big question is whether the prize justifies the resources that are spent on it,” he said. “It’s easy to justify if you’re exposing more serious criminality.”

Phil Hall, the editor of the News of the World from 1995 to 2000 – and Mahmood’s former boss – agreed that the methods used in such investigations have to be proportionate.

“If you’re investigating someone selling drugs, clearly you’ve got to go to buy drugs. But if you’re going to offer someone £2 million for a line of cocaine, clearly that’s not right,” he said.

Hall, who now chairs the London-based PR firm PHA Media, praised Mahmood as a professional reporter.

“He was the most dedicated reporter I ever came across. He worked 20 hours a day, 7 days a week,” Hall told Al Arabiya News.

“He exposed gun runners, triad gangs; he was the first person to ever write about Osama bin Laden and say he was the most dangerous man in the world.”

Subterfuge

Roy Greenslade, media commentator for The Guardian, has been one of Mahmood’s fiercest critics. While he acknowledges that the “Fake Sheikh”’ is “a clever, canny and creative reporter,” he wrote in 2006 that his methods “debase journalism” and that he wanted to “put an end to his regular use of subterfuge”.

“People have been encouraged to commit crimes they would not otherwise have conceived,” Greenslade wrote in The Independent in 2006. He pointed out that, while subterfuge is a valid journalistic practice, it must only be used as a last resort, and where there is a clear public-interest case.

Mahmood did not respond to requests for comment. He did however tell the Leveson enquiry into phone-hacking that subterfuge “gets to the truth more effectively than any other form of journalism,” according to The Guardian.

“There have been allegations [that] I encourage individuals to commit offences which they would not have done had it not been for my concealing my identity and pressing them into committing an offence,” he said. “I strongly dispute this interpretation of the way I work.”

David Holmes, lecturer in journalism at the University of Sheffield, said that – in general – there are certain cases that justify journalists using such practices, or even breaking the law.

“Journalists have to think very, very carefully before using covert tactics… that could be described as subterfuge or entrapment,” he said. “Is it ever ethical for a journalist to break the criminal law in pursuit of a good story? I think sometimes it might be.”

Before using subterfuge, however, a journalist should be certain that the story is in the public interest, and that there is no other way of obtaining the required information, Holmes said.

“The question with Mahmood is whether he’s using as a first resort what journalists are told by their ethical codes should be used as a last resort,” he said.

“The criticism that’s often leveled at Mahmood is that he is using subterfuge – most famously in the ‘Fake Sheikh’ guise – as a first resort, knowing that it produces a very saleable, sexy story.”

Holmes acknowledged that Mahmood’s career had been “checkered to say the least,” but said that many of his “gutsy” investigations had been in the public interest.

“We should be careful not to damn him too readily. He has over the years done some very interesting work… It’s not all celebrity froth by any means,” Holmes said. “Is it entrapment or is it good journalism? It could conceivably be both.”

To rise again?

A spokesman for The Sun confirmed Mahmood has been suspended and an investigation is on-going following the Tulisa court case. “We are very disappointed with this outcome, but do believe the original investigation was conducted within the bounds of the law and the industry’s Code,” the spokesman said.

Pending an investigation by his employer, and possible action over allegedly lying in court, it remains to be seen whether the “Fake Sheikh” will make a comeback.

But he has done so several times before. In 1988, Mahmood quit the Sunday Times under a cloud over an alleged act of dishonesty there. But the newspaper welcomed him back shortly after the closure of the News of the World in 2011.

Whether or not the “Fake Sheikh” will rise again, his suspension from the Sun on Sunday comes at a low-point in British journalism, in the ongoing fallout of the phone-hacking scandal, Holmes said.

“In the UK, journalists’ reputation and standing is not very high,” he said. “The concern of many journalists is that we can’t endure another public-relations disaster.”

 
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