Sheikh down: Mahmood’s questionable journalism

The fake Sheikh story shows how crime and journalism can get too close for comfort. There is also the terrible pain and suffering that tabloid journalism at its worst can inflict on naive people who are just as flawed as the rest of us

Mazher Mahmood, photographed by the BBC
Steven George-Hilley
On 13 November 2014 10:00

“I have to tell you I have never been so nervous in my life,” said 25 year John Alford, star of ITV’s London's Burning, as he entered the luxury suite in the Savoy Hotel in 1997, wearing his newly purchased beige suit and tie.

The former child actor had good reason to be anxious, he was meeting His Royal Highness Mohammed Al-Karee, who was offering him the chance to star in a £1million film deal, working alongside his idols Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone.

For Alford, who was one of the most sought-after up and coming actors of his generation, the opportunity fulfilled his wildest dreams, and was perfectly crafted to entrap an impressionable young man with a chequered history with drugs and alcohol.

Keen to demonstrate his commitment to his new-found friends, Alford foolishly complied with their request to obtain drugs, supplying two grammes of cocaine and 11 grammes of cannabis.

It was the day after that, when he learned that the Rolex-wearing, Rolls-Royce driving Sheik was actually News of the World journalist Mazher Mahmood and that the video and audio evidence of Alford’s criminal activity had been handed over to the Police. Days later, he was sacked from his £50,000-a-year role in the ITV television drama, lost his home, was charged with supplying class-A drugs and jailed for nine months.

From a media perspective, Mahmood had a public interest justification for conducting the sting and publishing the story. John Alford had previously featured on TV’s Grange Hill as part of a "Just Say No" anti-drug single, his activity was hypercritical and unquestionably illegal.

But was Alford really a drug dealer? Or was he a young man who procured drugs due to a manufactured situation, and intensive pressure applied in an elaborate scheme designed to trick him into criminal activity? Alford, who has since struggled to find acting roles and makes a living through working as a scaffolder and minicab driver claims not. "I was wrong to sort out the deal," he says. "If it wasn't for Mahmood there would have been no drug deal. I wasn't a drug dealer, I was an actor."

These were the same troubling questions that led to the collapse of the Tulisa Contostavlos trial earlier this year, in which she was charged with supplying £820 worth of cocaine to Mahmood. The judge threw out the case, questioning the integrity of the Fake Sheik and claiming there were “strong grounds for believing Mr Mahmood told me lies." The judge added:

“There are also strong grounds for believing that the underlying purpose of these lies was to conceal the fact that he had been manipulating the evidence in this case by getting Mr Smith (a witness) to change his account."

Like Alford, Tulisa was offered a dazzling opportunity, and put under pressure prior to arranging for the procurement of drugs. In her case, she was hoping to star in a £3.5m movie opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in a major Bollywood production. Once again, Mahmood’s modus operandi of creating a scenario to generate the story, instead of creating a scenario to discover a story, reared its ugly head.

Having tried to commit suicide through pills and drink, a video of a sobbing Tulisa tells us much about her state of mind during the trial, “They’re killing me, they’re killing me, they’re fucking killing me,” she weeps hysterically. Likewise, Alford says he also considered suicide, and only avoided it because of the support from his friends and family, claiming he can never get back the last 18 years that were taken from him.

For his part, Mahmood rejects the allegations broadcast in this week's Panorama documentary, that he deliberately entrapped his targets and repeatedly conducted highly questionable journalism. “I would ask anyone interested to keep an open mind on any allegations they do indeed make,' he said, speaking through lawyers.

Nobody can realistically defend breaking the law, particularly when someone is supplying Class A drugs. But what we can understand is someone who carried out that behaviour at the request of those who set out deliberately to encourage it, using promises of eye-watering fame and unimaginable wealth.

Following the collapse of the Tulisa trial, Mazher Mahmood finds himself suspended from his job at the Sun on Sunday, exposed in the newspapers and possibly facing criminal charges for perjury and a lengthy jail term.

For his victims, whilst the damage inflicted on their lives by the Fake Sheikh cannot be undone, they may take some comfort in the fact that finally, Mazher Mahmood is feeling some of their pain.

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 and tweets @StevenGeorgia

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