Mazher Mahmood & The Undercover Sting
Six years qgo, Gavin Saxton called Mazher Mahmood on these very pages and feels vindicated onver his comments. He also, has further questions which need to be answered.
Back in 2010, I wrote this piece for twohundredpercent, about the journalistic standards of Mazher Mahmood and the News of the World, with particular respect to Mohammad Amir and the Pakistan cricket team’s spot-fixing scandal of that year. Wind forward six years: Amir, having served a criminal conviction as well as a five-year ban from cricket, has now been rehabilitated into the Pakistan side and played in the series against England this summer; the News of the World has, in theory at least, ceased to exist; and Mahmood – the infamous ‘fake sheikh’ behind a clutch of undercover stings – has seen his own career unravel to the extent that he was, last week, convicted of tampering with evidence in relation to a case against Tulisa Contostavlos which was based on his reporting.
For those not familiar with the case – back in 2013 Mahmood tried to set Tulisa up. Posing as a Bollywood film producer, and dangling in front of her the promise of a lucrative contract which might boost her acting career, he then attempted to persuade her to source for him a modest quantity of cocaine for personal use. Tulisa played along as much as one might to someone who promised influence to her career, but ultimately didn’t bite, and indeed expressed her distaste for drugs in clear and unambiguous terms. It was these comments – initially reported by Mahmood’s driver Alan Smith, but subsequently deleted from his statement after an email exchange between the two men – which resulted, firstly in the collapse of the legal case against Tulisa, and finally in the convictions of both men.
Even without the conviction, the modus operandi already looked very familiar. In 2014, shortly after the collapse of Tulisa’s trial, BBC Panorama ran a documentary examining several of Mahmood’s apparently successful stories. Such as those of Emma Morgan and John Alford – respectively a page three model and an actor who had appeared in something called London’s Burning. These two were entrapped in very similar circumstances: Morgan was flown to Lanzarote and was apparently being offered lucrative modelling work; Alford the prospect of a career in Hollywood. During the course of their respective meetings, with drink flowing, each was pressured to obtain small amounts of drugs for their potential new benefactor – next thing they’re splashed across the front pages as drug dealers, their careers ruined.
Now, true, there may have been some selectivity bias in the small number of cases that the BBC highlighted, but the pattern came to look a familiar one. Mahmood, in this light, did not look like a heroic investigator, unmasking criminals by going undercover, but a man who would do everything possible to try and provoke a crime to get his story, even where there might be no suggestion the crime might otherwise exist, or that the victims of his stings might ever be indulging in such behaviour without his presence. It was entrapment in its rawest form. Which brings us back to the Pakistani cricketers. Amir, Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif were exposed, during Pakistan’s Test series in England in 2010, for spot-fixing – organising deliberate no-balls at specific points during a match, after an undercover Mahmood had filmed himself arranging (and agreeing to pay for) exactly such through a middleman called Mazhar Majeed (a man who has, incidentally, appeared on twohundredpercent in other contexts ).
It should be observed that there are some significant differences between this case and the ones previously mentioned. For one thing, it was quickly obvious that the three cricketers had been caught red-handed and were indeed guilty of what they were accused of (all three were subsequently convicted). Furthermore the crime for which they stood trial was, in my view as a sports fan, a serious one, whereas the crime of which the others were accused – obtaining a small amount of cocaine for a potential benefactor in a social situation – is to my mind an entirely trivial one even had they been guilty (and we must stress in any case that Tulisa was not, while a number of others are now seeking to have convictions reviewed in the light of recent developments).
But beyond that it was possible to discern the same pattern. At the time, unfortunately, few did so. Mahmood’s star was still in the ascendancy then, and the unmasking of these three players was met with near-hysteria among the cricket and media fraternities alike. Mahmood was lauded for his part in exposing this apparently major problem, while previous Pakistan games were scoured for evidence of anything amiss and there were calls for Pakistan to be banned from international cricket until they sorted themselves out. (Perhaps ironically given Mahmood’s own background, it seemed to me that he was happy to play on the racial element here – just as he later attempted to exploit perceptions of Tulisa’s class. As noted at the time, admissions of spot-fixing in football by Matt LeTissier – which had emerged in his autobiography the previous year – were met with cheerful indifference by media and law alike; and while cricketers of other nationalities have been prosecuted for similar offences, I don’t recall any parallel calls to ban, say, England from all cricket until they could get their house in order.) Virtually all of this has turned out to be hot air. Now, I’m not writing this article to say I told you so, but …
Well alright, maybe I am. A bit. Because here at twohundredpercent we were, if I say so myself, ahead of the game on this one. At the time I wrote:
“If it turns out that they do have a story here that was over and above the one of their own making, if the investigation does lead us to discover people – besides their own journalists – who are prowling the world of sport offering money to fix matches then I’ll eat my words and acknowledge the role they played in it.”
Even at the time the story – or at least the attempts to claim a wider story, over and beyond the one specific incident – looked flimsy to me. Evidence of absence is not absence of evidence, but the circumstantial evidence strongly suggested that the spot-fixing incident involving the three players was a one-off, and that looks even more the case with hindsight. The conversations and debates between the players pointed to it as did the comedic exaggeration of Amir’s no-balls and the complete lack of anything similar in any other games, while the follow-up stories were lazy claims about other games which stood up to no sort of scrutiny – in particular Majeed had claimed to have helped fix a Test in Sydney a few months earlier, a game in which Pakistan had collapsed to defeat from a very strong position. The logistics of this didn’t stack up – here’s a very good two-part article from Australia which examines and demolishes the claim. Furthermore, evidence of ‘phone records and contact between Majeed and the players concerned showed little or no previous contact between them.
In short, my words remain very much uneaten, and while the three cricketers must still bear the personal responsibility of having agreed to do it, it’s impossible to escape the obvious conclusion: that this case, which the News of the World continued to trumpet as one of their success stories even as the ‘phone-hacking case fell on them, was simply another one of entrapment, of creating a story by creating a crime which would never have existed independently of their investigation.
But this is not simply a valedictory piece, because serious issues remain. For one thing, it’s only a couple of weeks since Sam Allardyce was caught in similar sting. Again, Allardyce’s personal responsibility should not be denied, and as a Scot with no vested interest I probably agreed that the FA were right to dispense with his services. But again, did the Telegraph really expose a problem that otherwise existed? Would the deal they dangled in front of Allardyce in order to provoke his indiscreet comments have been one of a number of such deals? Had he been going round saying similar things to others? No-one was very shocked that Allardyce was fingered as being dodgy, even though the only previous attempt to expose him (by Panorama again, this time in a much less impressive piece of work) fell hopelessly flat. But I rather suspect that he was targeted simply because of his reputation rather than because the investigation had any kind of prior insider knowledge.
I would also observe that the Telegraph’s follow-up stories were, for the most part, as weak as those which followed the spot-fixing affair, and again amounted to little more than hot air and some almost-certainly bogus claims from middlemen attempting to big themselves up. Not that I would be at all surprised to discover football to be riven with corruption, but I’m yet to be convinced that the Telegraph had their fingers on any meaningful pulses.
Because the much more serious issue that remains is the continued behaviour of the media themselves. I’m not the least bit sorry to see Mahmood get his comeuppance, but he’s only a bit-player – the media for which he worked will carry on regardless, and the pressures under which he worked and which made it imperative for him to keep finding stories will remain as strong as ever. Previous scandals have made little or no difference to the behaviour of our press: in 1997, Diana’s death made it culturally unacceptable for them to poke their noses so intrusively into the private lives …. of royal family members only, while making no difference to their overall behaviour to anyone else. So, in 2011, the ‘phone-hacking scandal – which was just brewing up when I wrote that earlier piece – made it unacceptable for them to use that one particular method of obtaining information, but entirely failed to address the wider issues of media practice, the agendas they pursue, the influence they have and the lives they ruin. Many people who’d been victims of it spoke eloquently at the Leveson Inquiry, but any hopes that this wider culture would be tackled have been almost entirely dashed in the focus on the one relatively-minor detail of how they got some of their stories.
Rupert Murdoch declared it “the most humble day of my life” when he answered to MPs about ‘phone-hacking. Before long, he demonstrated his heartfelt remorse by effectively restarting the News of the World under a new name – The Sun on Sunday, which continues to rake the same muck. It might be editorially independent of its predecessor, but if anyone doubts the continuity I would only observe that Mahmood’s hit on Tulisa was for the new ‘paper, and followed exactly the same pattern as before.
Mahmood will now be thrown under a bus, and nothing will change.
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