When the News of the World newspaper closed in 2011, in the wake of the phone hacking scandal, its editor, Colin Myler, said: “I know we produce a paper to be proud of.” To prove the point, the paper’s final edition was covered with front page exclusives, many of them the work of Mazher Mahmood: the Fake Sheik. Mahmood’s undercover work in exposing crime was always offered as evidence that the paper operated “in the public interest”.
Now that last shred of respectability lies in tatters after the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced that 25 convictions based on evidence collected by Mahmood are to be re-examined. Those cases that were yet to come to court have been dropped.
The turning point for Mahmood was the Tulisa Contostavlos story. Caught up in an elaborate tabloid sting, the singer and former X Factor judge found herself in court on drugs charges. The case was dismissed because the judge, Alistair McCreath, said there were “strong grounds for believing Mr Mahmood told me lies”.
It should not be forgotten that Mr Mahmood is the sole progenitor of this case; the sole investigator; the sole prosecution witness; a man who has exercised his journalistic privilege to create a situation in which the identities of others involved in the investigation are unknown to the defence (or the prosecution or even to me); someone who appears to have gone to considerable lengths to get Ms Contostavlos to agree to involve herself in criminal conduct, certainly to far greater lengths than would have been regarded as appropriate had he been a police investigator.
At this point there is no suggestion that Mahmood will himself be the subject of police attention, though a CPS press statement warned: “Care should be taken when reporting matters relating to Mr Mahmood to ensure it does not affect the fairness of future proceedings as a police investigation remains ongoing.”
Pressing need for regulation
There are, however, 63 other UK journalists who have been arrested or charged since the start of the phone-hacking scandal. Three have been imprisoned. Not all of those who came to the attention of the police were employed by the News of the World but the vast majority worked for newspapers that vociferously opposed the establishment of new forms of press regulation recommended by Lord Justice Leveson, after a two-year inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press.
There is a connection here. The most powerful news organisations in the UK (barring the BBC) own the big tabloid newspapers and it is these newspapers that are most often accused of unethical behaviour and subject to the largest number of complaints. They were also the most powerful members of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which until September, was charged with the self-regulation of the press. Paul Dacre, for example, the editor of the Daily Mail, was also the chair of the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee of PressBoF, the press standards board of finance which oversaw the funding of the PCC.
It was those who dominated the PCC that also campaigned most vociferously against the implementation of the Leveson recommendations, which sought to replace the PCC with an independent organisation capable of balancing the needs of a free press, with the protection of individuals from tabloid bullying.
It was these same organisations that then set up their own “regulator” – IPSO – which is no more independent than its predecessor and refuses to sign up to the Leveson recommendations. Tim Luckhurst, one of the few media academics who lines up with the tabloid proprietors, argued on the Free Speech Network website in 2012 that breaches of the law should simply be left to the police.
Ironically, we are now discovering just what it looks like when the regulation of the “free press” is left to the police. There is nothing at all edifying about the spectacle of British journalists trying to defend themselves in court, against accusations that they have bribed the police, hacked into phones, listened to private messages and then tried to cover their tracks when they found they had been rumbled. And now the CPS investigations might be throwing the Fake Sheik cases into the mix.
Mark Lewis, the lawyer who represented many of those with phone-hacking claims against journalists, told The Guardian that he was representing 16 possible victims of Mahmood stings. He said:
What we are talking about here is, in financial terms, bigger than phone hacking ever was because people have lost their livelihoods, their homes and their incomes over a period of time. It would not be appropriate to comment on the specifics of these cases, but there are a lot of people whose convictions are unsafe and they will be pursuing the appropriate appeals against those convictions, which might have been many years ago.
Given the existence of a code of conduct to which they were all signed up, and an ethics organisation that their newspaper purported to support, how did all these journalists get away with behaviour that subsequently landed them in court and in some cases in jail?
Mahmood told the Leveson inquiry:
Everything was discussed with the legal team. I couldn’t go off-piste and do what I wanted. I had to take legal advice and throughout the investigation I remained in constant touch with our lawyers.
So why were none of these journalists stopped?
While the major newspapers were crying out about Leveson breaching their freedoms they arguably were looking in the wrong direction. The press needs a genuinely independent and respected body not only to save it from itself, but also to protect it from a continually growing threat – the police.
One of the few moments in recent years in which editors across the spectrum have stood together was when they discovered that the police were using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to examine journalists’ phone records. This really was a breach of press freedom and there was no relevant body, independent and yet respected by the public, that could act act on its behalf when the state interfered.
British journalism needs independent regulation to keep the state off its back as well as to define the boundaries of journalistic intrusion. The last thing it needs is to be undefended when the police come to call.