Former News of the World investigations editors Mazher Mahmood yesterday told a court that over 20 years at the News of the World he had no knowledge of phone-hacking at the paper.
And undercover reporter Mahmood strongly denied his investigation into an alleged cricket betting scam involving the Pakistan cricket involved the illegal interception of voicemail messages.
He told London’s Southwark Crown Court he had received death threats since publishing the story alleging that a sports agent took bribes to arrange for Pakistan cricketers to bowl deliberate no-balls during the Lord’s Test against England last summer.
Mahmood said he launched an investigation after a secret source sent him copies of “incriminating” text messages from UK-based agent Mazhar Majeed’s BlackBerry phone showing that match-fixing had been going on for a “long time”.
But he insisted that the story “had nothing to do with phone hacking” and said he had no knowledge of the illegal practice during his 20 years at the News of the World.
The jury has heard that Mahmood, posing as a rich Indian businessman, paid Majeed £150,000 in cash as part of an arrangement to rig cricket games in a gambling scam.
Prosecutors allege that Majeed, from Croydon, south London, conspired with Pakistan’s former Test captain Salman Butt, 27, and fast bowlers Mohammad Asif, 28, and Mohammad Amir, 19, to fix parts of the Lord’s Test between August 26 and 29 last year.
Butt and Asif, who are standing trial, deny conspiracy to cheat and conspiracy to accept corrupt payments.
Giving evidence from behind a screen to hide his identity, Mahmood told the court that he began researching the story after a confidential source he had known for many years sent him information which was also passed to the International Cricket Council (ICC).
“They were incriminating text messages which showed these guys had been doing it for a long time,” he said.
Alexander Milne QC, defending Asif, said the messages were downloaded from Majeed’s BlackBerry and asked the reporter: “Is this not hacked material?”
Mahmood replied: “No, it is not… One, you’re assuming it’s downloaded from the telephone without the knowledge of the person, and second this is nothing to do with hacking at all.”
The journalist said he consulted the head of the paper’s legal department about the texts he received and confirmed it was “completely within the law” to use them.
He admitted that his source was paid after his story was published.
Milne asked him: “Was there any hacking of any of the phones that feature in this case that you were aware of at any stage?”
Mahmood answered: “There was no phone hacking involved. You’re barking up the wrong tree.”
The reporter “categorically” denied that Majeed’s phone was hacked, saying that only he, his editor and the paper’s legal head had the agent’s mobile number.
Milne went on to suggest that Mahmood twice met Asif in London pretending to be a lawyer called “Imran Sheikh” after the story broke in the News of the World on 29 August last year.
The journalist said the claim was “completely untrue” and “ludicrous”, telling the court: “It would be a criminal offence. I would be in the dock if that was the case.”
He said the only time he met Asif was in Doha in Qatar at an ICC hearing, adding: “I’m a guy that’s been receiving death threats after this story, so the last thing I want to do is meet this cricketer.”
Milne said Asif was also “fairly confident” that Mahmood met him using a different name in Lahore in Pakistan between September and January.
The journalist replied: “In that case not only is he a match-fixer, but he’s also a liar, because I’ve never met him there.
“There is absolutely no information I want from this guy. He is absolutely bang to rights as far as I’m concerned – I’ve exposed him in the paper.” Mahmood insisted he never met or even spoke to Glenn Mulcaire, the private investigator who was jailed along with former News of the World royal editor Clive Goodman in 2007 for phone hacking.
Milne quoted a May 2008 interview Mr Mahmood gave in which he described the illegal interception of voicemails as an “isolated incident”.
The journalist said: “Are you suggesting I was aware it wasn’t an isolated incident? I had no idea at all in my 20 years. I had no knowledge of phone hacking.
“I read about the arrest of Goodman in the papers. I never met Glenn Mulcaire.
“I had no knowledge of that in my 20 years at the paper. I hope that the guys who were responsible for that go down.”
He added: “This story has absolutely nothing to do with phone-hacking. I appreciate you are clutching at straws here but this had nothing to do with phone hacking.”
The defence sought to paint Majeed as a “snake-oil salesman”, highlighting the way he “dropped names left, right and centre” during his meetings with the undercover reporter.
Milne said the agent “lived large”, with a fleet of cars including an Aston Martin in the drive of his £1.8 million house.
The jury has heard that Majeed boasted he knew Hollywood star Brad Pitt and tennis ace Roger Federer “very well”, and also claimed to have had dealings with former England cricketers Geoffrey Boycott, Phil Tufnell and Mike Gatting, and Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.
Milne noted: “We haven’t had so far any comment from Mr Federer or Mr Pitt as to the extent of their friendship with him. Did you believe that?”
Mahmood replied: “Anything’s possible.”
The journalist admitted Majeed was “exaggerating and embellishing in order to impress” and agreed anything he said had to be “taken with a pinch of salt”, but added: “Some of the things he said were completely true.”
Explaining why he believed the agent’s claims that he could arrange for no-balls to be bowled in return for large amounts of cash, Mr Mahmood described Majeed as an “honest villain” and cited an occasion when he hosted him at his house.
“Take it from me, I’ve been dealing with criminals for 20 years, they would never invite you to your home,” he said.
There were a few lighter moments in the hearing, including when Mr Mahmood confirmed that since breaking the match-fixing story he had travelled to Pakistan to investigate the killing of al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Milne provoked chuckles when he commented: “He (bin Laden) hasn’t featured in this case so far, but it’s early days.”