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  1. Law
November 21, 2014updated 01 Feb 2016 10:38am

Panorama's programme on the Fake Sheikh shows the trickster trapped

By Spear's

Having brought low the great and the good, says Dominic Crossley of Payne Hicks Beach, Mazher Mahmood has himself now been humbled

It was an awful lot of litigation for 30 minutes’ telly. But for John Alford, one of a number of the victims of the Fake Sheikh (Mazher Mahmood) interviewed by Panorama, it must have felt well worthwhile. Alford’s life was destroyed by a Mahmood sting: from the heights of TV fame to prison via a News of the World front page. After nearly 20 years, he has now had his say.

The BBC’s much-vaunted Panorama exposing the Fake Sheikh’s murky world faced enormous challenges to get to the point of broadcast. There was an urgent injunction, an unsuccessful attempt to seek permission to appeal that decision, a letter from the Attorney General and ‘new evidence’ sent to the BBC in the few hours between the loss in the Court of Appeal and the proposed broadcast.

This backdrop provided extra drama, and the BBC used it to positive effect from the outset. In broadcasting Mahmood’s undisguised face, we were told of his extensive attempts to prevent us from seeing these images. The BBC’s justification for doing so (as we were told during Panorama) was to make it more difficult for Mahmood to use these techniques to entrap future victims.

For Mahmood, the litigation was par for the course. In addition to his current attempt to prevent the BBC broadcasting parts of its Panorama broadcast, he has been a witness in a number of criminal trials, civil proceedings (not least his own previous injunction attempt in 2006) and, of course, the Leveson Inquiry.

I was one of the few to see him give evidence at Leveson. The inquiry went to huge lengths to accommodate his privacy and security demands. While he has always been a controversial figure, when giving his evidence before Leveson (on the first of two occasions) Mahmood remained an investigative journalist with a formidable reputation.

He was then with the Sunday Times having been rescued by his employers following the closure of the News of the World. His skewering of corrupt Pakistani cricketers was the News of the World’s last great scoop and his stock was high. His evidence to Leveson told of the 253 criminal convictions he had secured by way of his famous Fake Sheikh disguises.

Since then, Mahmood’s stock has taken a dramatic tumble towards last week’s nadir.

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It was at the Sun on Sunday that Mahmood turned his sights to Tulisa Contostavlos. The ‘drug deal’ story was a significant splash. Presumably to bolster his conviction statistics Mahmood worked to ensure Tulisa’s prosecution. The case reached trial but the trial judge dramatically ended the proceedings deeming Mahmood’s critical evidence unreliable.

The CPS, red-faced, had to abandon not only this case, but also reconsider the many cases in which it had co-operated with Mahmood. Panorama suggested that there had been an unhealthy and possibly unlawful relationship between Mahmood and police officers. The police are likely to be less amenable now.

After watching Panorama, one could see why he was so determined to stop it. Mahmood’s injunction application was described by his own silk as involving ‘supercharged’ privacy rights to protect his current image from being broadcast. He relied on Articles 2 (the right to life), 3 (the right to be protected from torture/violence) and 8 (the right to privacy) of the European Convention on Human Rights and referred to cases in which notorious murderers had achieved similar injunctions to protect them from retribution.

One could see circumstances where an injunction of this type may be granted. Investigative journalists, like undercover policemen and the security services, use subterfuge to immerse themselves in the lives and activities of individuals who, if the truth was known, may well turn to violence. In Mahmood’s case the court had to weigh up the risk to safety with the BBC’s right to freedom of expression (Article 10) in broadcasting Mahmood’s true identity.

The court heard, however, that Mahmood’s identity is largely no longer a secret, not least because of his own publicity efforts. George Galloway also famously turned the tables on Mahmood when he was in the journalist’s sights and Mahmood was powerless to stop the MP from distributing his image in 2006.

Panorama’s lawyers argued that it was an important principle to show how Mahmood had misused his disguises to lure his unwitting victims into his elaborate stings, and thereby face public disgrace on a Sunday front page. They submitted that the public have a legitimate interest in knowing who this notorious man really is.

Justice Eady concluded that there was not ‘clear evidence’ that showing Mahmood’s appearance would ‘materially increase’ the risk to his safety having regard to the information about his identity and appearance already available in the public domain. The Court of Appeal agreed and the broadcast could go ahead.

Mahmood will, no doubt, dust himself down ready for his next battle. He described the Panorama broadcast as ‘deeply irresponsible’. The ‘king of sting’ has been stung, and he now knows how much it hurts.

Dominic Crossley is a partner at Payne Hicks Beach

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