The Fale Sheikh is overthrown, but the matter can’t rest there

Big questions remain for prosecutors who relied on Mazher Mahmood’s testimony – and for all who allowed him to act without oversight

The Guardian, Thursday 6 October 2016

In the course of his long career, the undercover journalist known as the Fake Sheikh bragged about the number of people he’d sent to prison. Back in 2012, during a melodramatic appearance at the Leveson inquiry, Mazher Mahmood declared that he was “proud to have jailed paedophiles and drug dealers”. Now, in a stunning reversal of fortune, the famously camera-shy Fake Sheikh may be facing a prison sentence himself.

Mahmood has been convicted, along with his driver Alan Smith, of tampering with evidence in the drugs trial of the singer Tulisa Contostavlos. That trial was the result of a “sting” operation reported in the Sun on Sunday. Both men have now been found guilty of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, an offence which carries a jail sentence of up to two years.

It is all a far cry from the days when drug dealers, sports stars and celebrities who had fallen on hard times allegedly quaked at the mention of the Fake Sheikh. His scalps included members of the Pakistan cricket team, three of whom were jailed for match-fixing during a tour of England in 2010. Mahmood, by contrast, was celebrated. He won a series of press awards for the story.

The reporter boasted to the Leveson inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press that he had been responsible for more than 250 successful criminal prosecutions, although critics say the figure is closer to 70. He claimed that he lived under “a constant death threat”, persuading the inquiry that he could give evidence only in a courtroom cleared of everyone except lawyers. Reporters had to listen to the audio feed of his evidence from another room, allowing him to protect his identity – and increasing his mystique.

But there was always a darker side to Mazher Mahmood’s self-mythologising, with some of his best-known stories falling apart long before the Contostavlos debacle. Stings are part of newspaper life, the most recent being the Daily Telegraph’s revelations about Sam Allardyce, which prompted his resignation as England manager. But there is a difference between investigating pre-existing allegations of corruption in sport – or, indeed, a prominent MP’s willingness to pay for sex while chairing an inquiry into prostitution law, as the Sunday Mirror did recently – and persuading people such as Contostavlos to act entirely out of character, which is what, we must now conclude, Mahmood did.

What next? Mahmood and Smith are due in court for sentencing later this month. But even then, it doesn’t end. Big questions remain for police and prosecutors who relied heavily on Mahmood’s investigations and testimony in a number of contested cases. The lawyer Ben Rose, who defended Contostavlos at her drugs trial, went to the heart of the matter: “The real scandal in this case is that Mahmood was allowed to operate as a wholly unregulated police force, ‘investigating’ crimes without the safeguards which apply to the police,” he said.

Following the collapse of the Contostavlos trial, the crown prosecution service dropped a number of criminal cases in which Mahmood was due to be a witness, and announced a review of 25 past convictions. The criminal cases review commission is currently reappraising six cases involving celebrities who were convicted after being targeted by Mahmood.

But the questions go further than that. Consider that some police officers have privately complained that all weekend leave was cancelled when their superiors got wind that Mahmood was about to publish a big exposé in the News of the World. If true, is that level of complicity at all appropriate?

Surely such allegations, indeed all issues raised by the case, demonstrate the urgent need for ministers to set up the second part of the Leveson inquiry, specifically to examine relationships between the police and the press and whether they work towards the public good. It appears to have been parked. The very public fall of Mazher Mahmood tells us it must now be set up without delay.

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