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October 7, 2016updated 10 Oct 2016 12:44pm

Mazher Mahmood, the baby for sale and his use of stings to target cocaine-dealing celebs

By Dominic Ponsford

In a comment piece earlier this week I noted that former News of the World editor Andy Coulson once boasted to Press Gazette that a Mazher Mahmood sting had saved the life of a child who was offered for sale.

It has been suggested to me that this story is not all that it seemed and deserves further explanation (not least because Coulson has since served time for phone-hacking). And also that I was unduly sympathetic to Mahmood, given his conviction for dishonesty this week and the other questions that have been raised about his methods.

The story from 2005 was about a Plymouth 18-year-old who offered to sell her two-year-old daughter to the undercover reporter for £15,000. It recounted a meeting between the woman and her boyfriend in which the child was offered for sale with no apparent concern about what would happen to the little girl.

In October 2005 The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade published a story based on an interview with Florim Gashi, a Mahmood informant. He is a criminal with a record for telling lies, but he told Greenslade: “I got her boyfriend to persuade her to do it. She didn’t know what was happening. She was a good mother and I regret being involved.”

This story, like Mahmood’s others, was backed up by covert recordings. I understand that Gashi alleged the tape was cut to incriminate the mother.

In my piece I pointed out that Mahmood has used his undercover methods to uncover undoubted public interest stories such as the Pakistan cricket match-fixing scoop and Sarah Ferguson’s apparently willingness to accept large amounts of cash for securing access to her former husband Prince Andrew

I should also point out that two of his biggest investigations unravelled at the trial stage.

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In 2003 the trial of five men plotting to kidnap Victoria Beckham collapsed after it emerged that a key witness, Gashi, was a Mahmood informant who had been paid £10,000.

In 2006 three men accused of conspiring to buy “red mercury” in order to make a “dirty bomb” after a Mahmood trial were found not guilty by a jury.

Around 20 of Mahmood’s former targets are now expected to file damages claims against him and the owner of his defunct former paper, the News of the World.

They include former actor John Alford whose life was ruined by his conviction for supplying cocaine to Mahmood in an undercover sting in 1997 and former Page Three model Emma Morgan who was also persuaded to supply Mahmood with drugs.

One veteran Fleet Street crime reporter who worked for the News of the World in the pre- Mazher Mahmood era yesterday told me that going after celebrities for involvement in cocaine was a cynical form of journalism.

They said that cocaine use was rife in many areas, not least Fleet Street (in the 1980s and 1990s at least), and that it did not qualify as the sort of serious crime that national newspaper journalists should be focusing on.

For me, the jury is still out on Mahmood as far as the wider allegations against him go. But I accept that given what we now know about phone-hacking at the News of the World (and elsewhere) it is best to keep an open mind when it comes to historic allegations of tabloid wrongdoing.

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