THE BLOG

Mazher Mahmood - The Fake Sheikh in the Dock

18/11/2014 08:31 GMT | Updated 17/01/2015 10:59 GMT

According to stories in this week's Guardian, victims of the Fake Sheikh are queuing to come forward to protest at their treatment at the hands of one-time News of the World ace investigator Mazher Mahmood.

Wednesday night's Panorama unmasked the Sun on Sunday's star reporter, whose star is on the wane since the collapse of the trial of former X Factor judge Tulisa Contostavlos.

It told of what appeared to be a pretty unmerciful modus operandi - take an emerging celebrity, ply them with booze, offer them millions in lucrative contracts and then gently, but increasingly persistently, ask if they could provide drugs.

The long line of his celebrity "victims" also included Sarah Ferguson, the former Duchess of York, and Prince and Princess Michael, who both let slip some choice royal indiscretions when they thought he was about to give them millions of pounds.

I worked alongside Maz for 13 years when I was political editor of the News of the World and found him a tough, resourceful and committed reporter. Like a well-trained hunting dog, he was always straining at the leash and desperate to get stuck in to the next big story.

Ambitious and fearless, he would leave no stone unturned. I once took him to do a joint interview with the then Home Secretary Charles Clarke and sat there squirming as Maz harangued him about his government's immigration policy. In fairness to Charles, he has a pretty thick skin and the exchange made great copy.

Panorama's expose was carried out by former Observer correspondent John Sweeney and was gripping television, but it was also an incomplete story. The Newsnight analysis which followed featured Professor Roy Greenslade (the Guardian) and Labour MP Tom Watson. Neither show contained a single interview with anyone who could give the other side of the story. They proved that News UK still has few friends at the BBC these days.

It also missed the fuller picture. As I said before, Maz is extremely talented, but that commitment to nail a story can make him blinkered. Successive editors had to rein him in at times but it was a difficult balance to reach because his celebrity stings sold newspapers by the bucket load.

Panorama, perhaps unsurprisingly, didn't mention the Pakistani cricketers jailed for match-fixing after Maz targeted them, or the child he saved from a crack-addicted prostitute who thought she was selling her daughter to be abused.

Tabloid newspapers are a raw, at times brutal, world. That has meant that at times the vulnerable and needy have been chewed up and spat out. It also means the vain and over-ambitious have been brought back down to earth and the venal and criminal exposed.

If you look at Maz's career in the round I reach a different conclusion - when handled well he produced some great stories, proper scoops. But when Editors under pressure to sell newspapers took the easy option, things could, and in the case of Tulisa clearly did, go badly wrong.