The national press had one victim in its sights on Tuesday morning. It was one of their own. Mazher Mahmood, award-winning News of the World reporter, was suddenly on the wrong side of an investigation.
At the heart of it were his dealings with one of his key informants, Florim Gashi, the man at the centre of the collapsed Beckham kidnap trial. It was, like any reporter/informant relationship, a murky pairing. One in which the line between public interest and self-interest is not easily distinguished. An occupational hazard in dealing with criminals is that they tend to want to know what’s in it for them. There are few open and shut cases when it comes to exposing serious crime.
But for most of the nationals, this is an open and shut case – Gashi opened up his case and Mahmood put £10,000 into it for his part in infiltrating the gang. That makes him unreliable. The NoW deal meant he was manipulating the gang to get a result for the paper. The operation was a “put up job”. A “sting”.
As far as they’re concerned it also means that every other investigation that Mahmood has been involved with is utterly discredited. The words “notorious”, “infamous” and “agent provocateur” were used liberally in Tuesday’s reports. His methods were “dubious”.
The Guardian put his picture on its front page – putting at risk, a livid NoW management believes, the safety of a journalist not exactly popular in the criminal underworld.
The paper is utterly perplexed by the events of this week. Having co-operated, it says, every step of the way with the police, it did not even know that Monday’s hearing was taking place or that the CPS, having originally opted to prosecute, was not offering evidence. None of its representatives was in court to defend its methods. The police had already used Gashi as a witness in a previous, successful, conviction.
Now the Attorney-General may want to ask questions. The Press Complaints Commission will investigate – although it’s important to remember its strengthened clause on payment to witnesses was made four months after the Beckham kidnap story broke.
But there’s a great danger that fundamental issues may become buried under the weight of opprobrium descending on the NoW and Mahmood. Already there is talk of legislation to govern newspaper payments. That would be an extremely dangerous route to go down.
Popular investigative journalism has a crucial role to play in a robust and free press. It’s vital that this fact – or the 100-plus successful convictions he’s helped to secure – isn’t forgotten in the rush to bury Mahmood.