Tulisa and the Fake Sheikh

Tula Paulinea "Tulisa" Contostavlos, the sheikh, the sting, the law, and the ethics of the tabloid press. After the phone hacking scandal, you'd have thought it was all over. It isn't yet

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Tulisa Contostavlos
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Steven George-Hilley
On 4 August 2014 07:56

The last 12 months have not been kind to Tula Paulinea "Tulisa" Contostavlos. At the relatively young age of 26, she has lost a stone in weight, changed her appearance and been unable to give a public interview to the press to defend herself.

Rewind back a bit and most of us remember a fresh faced singer-songwriter, with a successful solo career and a slot on the X-Factor panel. But being a public figure in the aggressive music business as well as a role model to teenagers around the world has its risks, and she discovered this when the Sun on Sunday ran the headline “Tulisa's cocaine deal shame” to its many millions of readers.

She had been the victim of a sting by Mazher Mahmood, one of the most controversial and successful undercover reporters in the business. From the Victoria Beckham kidnap plot to the Duchess of York, the highly decorated reporter was the master of deception, luring his victims into a false sense of security before capturing them on film often engaging in illegal or corrupt activity.

Looking at the background of the Tulisa case, this was a particularly cruel and incredibly elaborate sting. The young singer was whisked off to Las Vegas on first class flights and wined and dined repeatedly in luxury hotels.

The fact that Tulisa actually seemed to believe there was a prospect for her being signed up for a £3.5m film contract to star opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in a major Bollywood filmed production underlined her naivety.

But naivety is no defence when it comes to illegal activity. So when her friend Michael Coombs pleaded guilty to providing Mahmood with £820 worth of cocaine, she was immediately implicated in a plot to sell drugs.

The story was made worse by a series of text messages, gleefully printed by The Sun on Sunday in which she offered to "sort" the drugs. As an investigative journalist working for one of the dirtier tabloids once told me, “The celebrities sometimes forget that there is a very, very strong public interest in drugs stories, because of course drugs are illegal and they seem to forget this.”

It was of course the angle of being in the public interest that permitted the legal defence for such an extravagant entrapment. A legal defence that if ever watered down by the courts would probably put Mazher Mahmood out of work.

So, were there grounds in the public interest for exposing Tulisa’s involvement in a plot to supply class A drugs? On the face of the story, very much so. This woman, although clearly foolish, had been making a lot of money from music sales to a whole generation of kids and was watched by millions on the most successful star-studded Saturday night show on the television.

There was an overwhelming argument that her secret -- and illegal -- double life should be exposed to stop her deceiving the public.

But this clear cut case of public interest journalism was sensationally undermined when her criminal trial for intent to supply collapsed, with Mahmood potentially facing a charge for perjury.

Contostavlos found herself walking free from the dock as Judge Alistair McCreath said he had strong grounds to believe Mr Mahmood had lied in order to conceal the fact he had been manipulating the witness evidence.

This shock revelation inevitably raised more questions about any potential deceitful dealings involved in other aspects of the sting and the wider ethical questions about the extent of the entrapment. Following the collapse of the trial, the public image splashed across the tabloids of a sinister drug dealer is now starting to look more like a naive victim of a cruel and dishonest stitch up.

Like Max Mosley, she has however wasted no time in hitting back, giving an interview to The Guardian about being plied with alcohol, manipulated and being concerned that her drink was spiked.

These allegations along with the threat of a perjury trial which could lead to a prison sentence for Mahmood, will cause another headache for the tabloid machine which has already suffered monumental damage from the phone hacking scandal.

Such revelations once again raise legitimate questions about the standards and practices of journalism in the UK. Does, for example, the public interest angle apply if the journalist has had to spend thousands and coerce the victim into that illegal activity on elaborate false promises?

Surely this should be a case of picking your battles, with the media needing to re-focus on those clearly engaging in wrong-doing, instead of pushing them into circumstances where it can take place?

As the lyrics in her 2012 hit single pleaded, “Forgive me for what I have done, cause I'm young.” How ironic those words must now seem.

My instinct is that if she keeps up the media campaign, drawing attention to the underhanded activity of the sting operation, then Tulisa could indeed be forgiven by the press and the British public.

Unfortunately for Mahmood and his team, with the Police re-examining the evidence for perjury, they may find themselves needing to plead something else.

Steven George-Hilley is a director at the Parliament Street think tank and a Conservative Party activist. He is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator

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