By Greg Miskiw
Mazher Mahmood recently made an earnest denial to the Leveson Inquiry into press and privacy.
The infamous Fake Sheikh said reports that he had commissioned a private detective for his investigations were “simply not true”.
And I believe him.
Because it was me who commissioned the private detectives – on his behalf.
The main private detective was none other Glenn Mulcaire – the phone-hacker who was later jailed for industrial-scale voicemail interception.
Many world exclusive stories that Mazher Mahmood did between 2000 and 2004 required Glenn Mulcaire to hack, blag and trace on his behalf.
During his two decades working for News International, now News UK, the Asian Ace built up an awesome team of operators who were the envy of ‘Fleet St’.
There was the diminutive Conrad Brown, the nerd techie, who set up the cameras and microphones, then monitored the screens during the sting.
He installed his equipment in TVs, lights, briefcases.
Anything with enough hollow space to carry a pin head camera, power pack and video-tape recorder.
Jaws, real name Mahmood Qureshi, was the muscle man – a gentler chap you could never meet but he had the fearsome look of a medieval warrior.
A lithe 6ft 2 inches tall with a mouth full of gold teeth, hence the 007 nickname, Jaws.
Surprisingly, Maz could not speak a word of Arabic.
Considering he spent a large portion of his working life as an Arab, this was a potential pitfall.
But, Maz had the answer.
A Palestinian plumber from Plaistow, East London, who spoke the lingo and would stand-in for Maz ,if there was any danger of the conversation veering off into Arabic.
Maz’s minders would always specify that in a meeting between him and his victim that, when in the UK, he would only speak English.
In the office, he was dubbed Sheikh Yuv Bin Ahad, my nickname for Maz.
The rest of the team included a disgraced barrister who practised in Hong Kong and was jailed for an illegal immigrants racket.
In addition, there was an immigration para legal from East London.
A formidable team indeed, including Alan Smith, a driver, and a couple of back-up suits.
But there was one missing link. Maz didn’t have anybody to trace, blag or hack.
That’s where I came in.
For many of the stories Maz needed the dark art of hacking to trace people and to second source stories.
Glenn Mulcaire’s hacking also helped establish a link between people and a pattern of when they contacted each other.
The interceptions provided the general tone of a voicemail – was it business-like, friendly, social or more?
Maz would be on the phone asking me to help out.
True, he never asked a PI to hack…….he asked me, his colleague and boss.
In his statement to the Leveson Inquiry, Maz correctly pointed out that it was the news desk’s responsibility to task private detectives.
He also said that the role of private detectives was limited to tracing people and other legal activities, that fell within PCC guidelines.
He failed to mention that much of their work was illegal.
And that his stories benefitted from that unlawfully obtained info, whether he knew it or not.
That said, nothing would stop Maz’s relentless bombardment of a story.
One family lunchtime in his hometown Birmingham, it emerged that his cousin was involved in video piracy.
Maz’s news antenna twitched and he told his family he would expose him.
They were appalled and his brother, who worked for the BBC, said he would never speak to him again if he did the story.
Maz did and his brother hasn’t.
His path to being dubbed the greatest investigative journalist did hit the occasional pothole.
At the Sunday Times, he was asked to rewrite news agency copy, completely misread it, and presented a story diametrically opposite to the one that was submitted.
Needless to say, there was a complaint but Maz brushed it aside.
The agency was asked to refile their copy so it could be compared with Maz’s version.
They did not tally.
Maz stuck by his guns. An investigation was launched and Maz, realising the original would be found, approached a computer technician at the Sunday Times to obtain a copy so it could be doctored.
His complicated ruse was discovered and Maz was fired.
But it goes to show just how far the Fake Sheik is prepared to go to fake it.
Year after year, Maz produced some sensational stories for the News of the World.
Probably, the most sensational was Maz foiling an attempt to kidnap Victoria Beckham by an Eastern European gang.
Maz called into the office and told me he had a story about a gang who had ‘obtained’ a stolen bejewelled turban worth millions from Sotherby’s auction house.
Maz planned to sting the gang by getting them to admit their crime.
I didn’t think much of the story and told him to wrap it up quickly.
Several days later another call from Maz.
An Eastern European gang were planning to kidnap Posh Spice and demand £5 million ransom from hubby David Beckham.
“Whooow,” I said, “the same gang as the ones with the turban?”
“Highly suspicious”, I said.
From stolen-turban-to-kidnap is a hell of a leap.
I started to question Maz about proof.
“It’s all on tape,” he said.
From that moment on, Maz would report to me and the editor Rebekah Brooks. (During the subsequent trial it was Andy Coulson.)
All the evidence supported the kidnap plot and Maz stood by his source Florim Gashi, who had supplied Maz with two other stories.
What Maz did not tell me was that one of previous stories based on Gashi’s tip – about drug dealing traffic wardens – was untrue.
Scotland Yard were informed of the kidnap plot, and an armed unit waited to ambush the villains with half a dozen cameras trained on them.
The Editor a time of the story in November 2002 was Rebekah Brooks.
The dramatic arrests were pictured all over the front five pages of the NoW the following day.
The gang were charged with attempted kidnap and conspiracy but the trial collapsed when it was discovered Gashi was paid for the story.
He claimed he received £5,000 in cash, whereas the NoW said it was £10,000.
By the time the trial came around in June 2003, Brooks had left the News of the World to edit The Sun and her deputy Andy Coulson was now in charge.
The editor, as ever, was bewildered by the court’s decision and stood by the story.
Since that time several facts have come to light which would indicate that the teams’ toe occasionally strayed across the line between truth and fiction.
In 1998, the then editor Phil Hall decided it wasn’t good enough to just expose criminals.
We needed to get them arrested, charged and convicted.
The difficulty with that was once a person is arrested, all that can be reported is his or her name, address, age and the charge.
A newspaper cannot go into details relating to the offence.
Once the trial is over, the media is allowed to publish whatever they have – but by then, the NoW story is no longer an exclusive.
The lifeblood of a Sunday tabloid is exclusivity.
After taking legal advice, it was decided that the police should be alerted to our investigations.
But they should agree not to arrest until after the story was published in the first edition, about 9pm on Saturday night.
It worried me immensely.
If an investigation was completed by Thursday, I was expected to wait until Saturday before contacting the police.
What if the villains did a runner in the meantime?
Or somebody was killed or injured during the waiting period, between the end of the investigation and publication and police involvement.
T he News of the World would be left open to criticism that our executives knew there was a potential risk of criminality that might have put people in danger.
I was particularly concerned about the welfare of a child from West Yorkshire caught up in a Mazher investigation.
The girl’s mother was planning to sell her.
In the waiting period before tipping off the police, I put a 24 hour-a-day watch on the house.
I did not believe it was the role of a newspaper to be police grasses.
If, after publication, the police wanted our file to launch a criminal investigation we should hand it over.
Maz spent vast sums of money, many tens of thousands sometimes, to get a story; hiring limos and helicopters, lavish meals, suites in five star hotels and cash payments.
But if you didn’t come up with the goods those days would be numbered, and I’m sure Maz felt that pressure.
The NoW decided to do a story about the most expensive hooker in the world, only on arrival at a £1,500 suite in New York she wanted $38,000 up front and the remaining $22,000 after the deed was done.
Of course our Fake Sheikh – not Maz on this occasion but one of his entourage, had to resist her charms.
Try though she may, to entice our man to the bed, in the age-old tradition, he made his excuses and left.
The bemused girl, a billboard model, took her money and then she left with her designer bag bursting with dollar bills.
At the Burg Al-Arab in Dubai, the lunch bill alone came to nearly £2,000, plus two bottles of Gaja and Rey wine at £900.
And that story didn’t work out.
Princess Diana’s blabbermouth butler Paul Burrell was given a coastal cruise at a cost of £2,000 on the Sheik’s yacht.
This is the sort of money Maz was spending.
Among all the stories Maz did there were good solid fact-laden investigations.
There were some which were flimsy – but somehow Maz managed to produce enough evidence to get it through the lawyers.
Others may well have been fabricated, and yet others were just plain fun.
The two fat Geordie directors of Newcastle United were like pigs in swill on their monthly sex and booze jaunts to Spain.
I was tipped off about their schoolboy antics in the sun.
Maz, being Pakistani had no understanding of English soccer culture and the especially devoted Newcastle fans who lived, ate and breathed the team and their star players.
Decked out in his robes, fake diamond rings, and a real £5,000 Rolex, the roly-poly Geordies were easy prey for the Sheikh.
Maz called in from Spain dejected ready to fly home.
“It’s useless. They haven’t said anything interesting. I should come back.”
“Hang on Maz, tell me what they talked about”.
“Well, they said they call Alan Shearer, Mary Poppins because he’s such a goody-two- shoes.
‘Oh, and Kevin Keegan is Shirley Temple because of his long, curly hair.”
“Yes, and…” I said.
“Oh yeah. They buy the team shirts for a fiver and sell them for forty quid.”
“All Geordie girls are slags, they said”.
Over the next several days, the Toon bosses managed to badmouth almost everything that is holy to the Newcastle fan.
The following Saturday afternoon, and for several subsequent ones, Shearer, the team’s star striker, had the opposition fans chanting “Mary Poppins” every time he touched the ball.”
Keegan, the manager, came in for the same treatment, as did the Geordie girls and their boyfriends, who were ridiculed.
Needless to say the directors resigned.