One of the most famous, yet unknown, investigative reporters is putting the finishing touches to his memoirs, to be published this autumn. The News of the World’s ‘fake sheik’ Mazher Mahmood clinched many of his scoops while in disguise.
Here he talks to Rachael Gallagher about the book, the famous and infamous, and his dress sense.
News of the World investigations editor Mazher Mahmood would like to get something off his chest. After 17 years on the paper – during which time he’s exposed paedophiles and arms dealers and helped convict 231 criminals – he’s decided to hit back at his many critics.
‘I’m just getting increasingly frustrated with the kicking that the News of the World gets unnecessarily,’says Mahmood, explaining why he’s chosen this point in his career to release a book detailing his work as one of the country’s most famous investigative journalists.
Confessions of a Fake Sheik is due out in September and will give a behind-the-headlines look at how Mahmood and his investigations team engineered their high-profile undercover exposÃ©s.
As well as documenting all the salacious stories that have left numerous celebrities, politicians and officials blaming Mahmood for their downfall, including a couple that didn’t make it into the paper and thought they were safe, he’ll be talking about the criminals he’s helped to put behind bars and even the children’s lives he’s helped save.
Speaking to Press Gazette at his News International office, in only his second ever face-to-face interview, he says: ‘Time and time again I’ve had to bite my lip when the News of the World is attacked, quite often by these armchair media commentators.
‘They sit and pontificate on our stories. These are people that have never done an investigation in their lives and wouldn’t know where to begin.”
Mahmood’s biggest media critic is journalism professor and Guardian media blogger Roy Greenslade, who in 2006 teamed up with MP George Galloway in calling for Mahmood to retire after Galloway was caught up in one of Mahmood’s trademark fake sheik stings.
Mahmood said: ‘The allegations he made were completely false and unfounded. I was looking at someone totally different, a Muslim who had been branded a terrorist.”
According to Galloway, Mahmood posed as an Indian businessman and, along with an accomplice, encouraged him to make anti- Semitic comments and take illegal payments for his party, Respect.
Shortly after the meeting at London’s Dorchester Hotel, Galloway claimed he knew the men were ‘imposters”. A furious Galloway called a press conference along with Greenslade and released some photos of Mahmood in a bid to undermine his ability to operate undercover.
Mahmood claims the NoW has turned down opportunities to publish unflattering stories about Galloway’s private life because ‘he’s a nobody’and says he will respond to Galloway’s criticisms in his book.
Mahmood still wants his face to remain as unrecognisable as possible, and will even be doing promotion for his book under heavy disguise.
‘What purpose did it serve publishing [his photo]? It’s just vindictive,’he says.
‘People forget the good work that goes on here. My colleagues and I put our lives at risk on a daily basis,’he adds, pointing out that he has been beaten up, had guns pointed at his head and had a Russian mafia boss put a £30,000 price on his head.
NoW was so enraged by Greenslade’s ‘anti-tabloid’rants that the newspaper withdrew its two annual scholarships on City University’s journalism course, where Greenslade is a professor, moving them elsewhere.
NoW was particularly aggravated when, after the 2005 British Press Awards, Greenslade wrote that serious papers ‘believe their profession has been devalued by the naming of the News of the World as newspaper of the year”.
Mahmood says:â€ˆ’The so-called quality papers, the broadsheets, have a go at us and criticise us and then steal our bloody exclusives week in, week out,’pointing out the recent example of the exposÃ© of Formula One chief Max Mosley.
‘They sneer at us for doing these investigations yet steal all of it and publish it for their own readers.
‘I think a lot of it is jealously. They’re envious. Nobody is better geared up to do investigative journalism then we are here. This is what we do.”
Mahmood says his proudest investigations have been those targeting paedophiles, and recalls how, after one child molester sent shotgun thugs after Mahmood to retrieve a video of him and his wife having sex with children in their care, he received a letter from an abuse victim thanking him for saving her life.
‘All these cases where we’re praised by judges aren’t reported anywhere,’he says. ‘But at any opportunity they’ll dig up the two cases that I know of where the case has collapsed.”
The first of these was in 2003. Then the paper was at the centre of controversy about payments to a key witness and defendant after the collapse of a trial, prompted by a NoW sting, of five men accused of plotting to kidnap Victoria Beckham.
Then in July 2006 three men were cleared of trying to buy ‘red mercury’to make a ‘dirty bomb’after a Mahmood sting in 2004.
Mahmood kept his silence after the criticism of his methods that followed the collapse of the dirty bomb trial, but he now says it is ‘nonsense’to blame him for the outcome.
‘The entire job I was basically working for Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism squad. I was registered as a participating informant; every single movement I made was on their orders. Quite often, as it came out in court, I didn’t agree with what they were doing, but I had to do it as I was working for them.”
Mahmood argues that if the Crown Prosecution Service thought there was a case to be put forward and the Attorney General personally signed for that case to go ahead, it must have been a worthy case.
He says: ‘It was a decision for the jury. The police were very disappointed that the prosecution failed.”
Addressing the criticism of the way he handled the case, he says: ‘How did they want us to do it? If I get a tip-off about potential terrorists, what should I be doing? Should I not be ringing the police, which I did in this case? If they gave me answers I’d be happy to accept it.”
Birmingham-born Mahmood, 44, says that if he wasn’t a journalist he would perhaps be in the police force, but that with both parents working as journalists he never imagined doing anything else.
His late father, Sultan Mahmood, set up the first national newspaper to be published in Urdu in Britain and published the first glossy Urdu magazine, printed at a local press and manually collated and stapled together by the Mahmood family in their kitchen.
‘That’s all we did; it was in our blood. As kids we spent our time playing around printing presses.”
Mahmood got his first scoop as a teenager in the Eighties by shopping some friends of his parents to the News of the World for selling pirate videos. ‘They went mad and tried to throw me out of the house,’he reveals.
The story secured him two weeks’ work on the NoW and, following that, he began freelancing for The People, where his fake sheik persona was born in 1984.
Mahmood and colleague Roger Insall were sent to expose a vice-ring operating out of the Metropol Hotel at the Birmingham National Exhibition Centre. Insall suggested that to entice hookers working at the exhibiting motor show Mahmood should pose as a rich Arab interested in purchasing a Ferrari.
‘I said it was a great idea,’he recalls. ‘Except I had a Brummie accent, so thought I’d better get an outfit.”
Since then the routine has been developed and has been successful in catching out a number of high-profile public figures, including former England coach Sven Goran Eriksson and the Countess of Wessex.
Mahmood says he thinks the sting has been a success time and time again because it plays on people’s stereotypes. ‘It instantly means you are wealthy. It [started] at a time in the Eighties when the wealth of the Arabs [was clear]. They were buying properties up and down Mayfair and Park Lane and were in the casinos.
‘They were synonymous with wealth at the time. When you’ve got a man in ‘rags’ and the manager of a hotel bowing it’s a great effect.”
The fake sheik routine has been perfected by Mahmood and his team at the NoW, where now everyone has their own character to fit in with the polished routine of the sheik with his minders, including entourage, limos and flash hotels.
‘Why shouldn’t you fall for it?’he asks. ‘What are you going to do? Stop dealing with the entire Arab population? It’s very plausible. There’s such a big cast involved.”
There have been a few close shaves along the way for Mahmood and his team. In an early sting he hired a soldier, moonlighting as a bodyguard, to work for the sheik.
Little known to him the soldier had served in Lebanon and was fluent in Arabic.
‘He walked in and started speaking Arabic, and I didn’t understand what the fuck he was saying. I called my sidekick in and said [putting on a deep Arabic accent] ‘Bradley, take him out, I never speak Arabic with white man!’. He came back in and apologised, but it was a close one.”
Mahmood joined the NoW in 1991 after two and a half years at The Sunday Times. His first front page was the week he joined, after he came to Britain smuggled in the back of a lorry on a P&O ferry.
One of his most dangerous missions, he says, was infiltrating the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 along with white photographer Conrad Brown, both posing as Muslims just a week after 9/11.
‘Just as Bush announced troops were going in we were in there already, waiting,’he says. ‘Nice people the Taliban, great hosts. They make a wicked goat curry.”
Mahmood has had numerous death threats during his career, and being Muslim himself he’s under constant criticism from the Islamic community for covering stories which cast them in a negative light.
When the NoW published the kiss-and-tell story about Faria Alam, the FA secretary who had an affair with then England manager Sven Goran Eriksson, Mahmood said he received death threats because the paper was ‘shaming Muslim women”.
‘That’s the mentality, and is part of the problem with our community.
‘It is why we’re getting Britain’s first suicide bombers – homegrown – because the community has this hush-hush policy here. They don’t want their own exposed – you’re a traitor if you do.”
Mahmood’s says his only regrets in his career are the stories that didn’t get in the paper, and emphasises that every story which does is scrutinised at a number of levels at the NoW to make sure it is legally watertight.
‘They want to listen to the tape and hear what context it was said in and the intonation. To get something in the paper isn’t easy, because everyone is out to sue us. With the no-win, no-fee policy every Tom, Dick and Harry is out to get us. That’s one of the disappointing sides of it.”
He says that in some ways he welcomes the legal threats he regularly receives because ‘if I stopped getting them I’d be worried as it would mean I’m not upsetting people enough”.
Perhaps the most notorious legal complaint in the NoW’s history came when assistant editor (Royals) Clive Goodman was jailed for four months in January 2007 after being found guilty of intercepting phone messages, resulting in the resignation of then editor Andy Coulson.
Mahmood insists it was an isolated incident, but admits it was a blow for the NoW and gave more fuel to the paper’s critics.
He says: ‘It’s sad that an incident like that can overshadow all the good work we do.”
Coulson was replaced by former Sunday Mirror editor Colin Myler who, Mahmood says, has ‘great judgement’and a hands-on approach. ‘He’s traditional old school. Because he’s been around so long, he’s steering the ship really well here.”
Myler told the Society of Editors conference in November that he would be pursuing a less celebrity-driven news agenda, something which Mahmood said he welcomes.
‘He got rid of all the stories that got in that I also felt shouldn’t have got in and shifted emphasis from showbiz to more hard news and investigations. He’s not afraid to plough money into drug exposÃ©s and [investigating] arms dealers. He’s given the paper a bit of new direction and sales are doing very well.”
Myler also told the Society of Editors that the growing UK privacy law was threatening the industry. But Mahmood says the privacy issue will not undermine his work.
‘Obviously, it’s become tougher over the years with these new privacy laws and more justification is required. But we don’t just pluck people out of the Yellow Pages and say ‘let’s go and target so and so today’.
‘We have to have information to warrant the investigation. The fake sheik ones are very expensive anyway – you need to justify that cost.
‘Investigative journalism will survive forever. It’s a battle we’re going to fight.
‘Public figures have to be accountable to the public. If you hold public office you’ve got to be held accountable and we’ll do our best to make sure they are – the public have a right to know.”