There's an old story, usually attributed to Mark Twain or Churchill, of a man who gets talking to an attractive woman on a train. After a while he asks, 'madam, would you sleep with me for a million pounds?' The woman tells him that she would.
'Well then, would you sleep with me for a shilling?'
'Sir! What kind of woman do you think I am?'
'We've already established what kind of a woman you are. We're just haggling over the price'.
This anecdote of woolly provenance is as good a description as any of the methods of Mazher Mahmood, aka the Fake Sheikh, star witness at Southwark Crown Court in the spot-fixing trial of Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir.
For a time, Mahmood, for all of the mystery that surrounds his physical appearance, was the most famous journalist in the country. Yet one of the ironies of the trial is that he gave his evidence in a media landscape that had altered irrevocably in the months between the publication of his story and the commencement of proceedings. The paper for whom Mahmood wrote his piece no longer exists, and neither, arguably, does the appetite for his stock in trade, the celebrity sting.
The News Of The World's defence of Mahmood's methods was generally that his investigations had led to 250 criminals being brought to justice. But it's also true that some of the crimes he reported would never have occurred without his involvement. In 2006, the media commentator and former Mirror editor Roy Greenslade wrote a piece for the Independent entitled 'Why I'm Out To Nail Mazher Mahmood'. He said: 'Mahmood's methods debase journalism. They often amount to entrapment, and on occasion, appear to involve the methods of agents provocateurs. People have been encouraged to commit crimes that they would not otherwise have conceived'.
Mahmood's rap sheet in that regard is long. Most notorious is his 2002 'world exclusive' story of a plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham. The reason it was a world exclusive is because there was no plot. After the men accused by Mahmood had spent seven months in prison on remand, the trial collapsed over the unreliability of the main witness – and Mahmood's major source – Florim Gashi. The News Of The World's role was referred to the attorney general, and it transpired that Gashi had been paid £10,000 by the newspaper, and had played a role in four other of Mahmood's stories.
In 1999, Mahmood's investigation led to the conviction of Joseph Yorke and another man on drugs charges, yet the jury sent the judge a note explaining that had they been able to take into account the 'extreme provocation' to which Yorke was subjected, they would have issued a verdict of not guilty. The judge agreed and passed only a suspended sentence. And in the conviction of the actor John Alford for supplying cocaine, also in 1999, the judge said that 'entrapment had played a significant part, but so had greed'.
There were more. In 2005, a man was jailed after he admitted selling Mahmood and the News Of The World a fake story that he was 'the fifth London bomber' in the 7/7 attacks. The police wasted more than 4000 hours of time investigating the claim after the paper splashed on the story. The man, Imran Patel, said that had been promised £5000 by the News Of The World. In 2006, three men, Dominick Martins, Abdurahaman Kanyare and Roque Fernandez, were acquitted of plotting to buy a substance that could be used to make a 'dirty' bomb, and Mahmood's methods were again questioned, this time by the BBC.
In 2010 Mahmood exposed the world snooker champion John Higgins over plans to fix frames in four tournaments across Europe. After an investigation, Higgins was banned from competition for six months for failing to report an illegal approach and discussing betting, and yet his acquittal on match-fixing charges came in part after Mahmood himself gave a full statement to the inquiry and turned over his unedited videotapes and transcripts.
The Higgins case perhaps best of all illustrates the ambiguities of these kind of stories. There is an excellent summary of it at the Sporting Intelligence site, including an interview with the man who investigated Higgins, former metropolitan police detective David Douglas, who says, 'The News Of The World are very clever at what they do, very clever indeed'.
Well not any more they're not. The paper has gone, closed for its involvement in the phone hacking scandal that might yet cost Rupert Murdoch control of his business. In retrospect, Mahmood's best stories were his more harmless ones - the shagging footballers and feckless club directors who insulted their own fans under the Fake Sheikh's wily prompting.
None of which is intended as a defence of Butt, Asif and Amir - especially the first two, Butt with his mug-purchase watches and ice-cream parlour deals; Asif with his schoolboy excuses and previous as long as your arm. It's just that this is another case that wouldn't have unfolded in the way it has without the presence of Mahmood and his robes and his bag of money – this time £140,000. You somehow wish for something as odious and damaging as spot-fixing to have been exposed by an organisation a little more noble. It's not exactly Watergate, is it... and it is probably the last of its kind.