“The king of the sting reveals all” boasts the subtitle of Confessions of a Fake Sheik (sic), the memoirs of tabloid “investigative journalist” Mazher Mahmood, published in 2008.
He certainly did reveal all at a French naturist resort back in 2001, as did two of his colleagues when the three of them stripped naked, posing as nudists in a bid to lay bare my supposed misdeeds at the resort to the readers of the infamous News of the World.
What the Fake Sheikh (to give the more usual spelling, with an h) has always kept firmly under wraps, though, is his willingness to use trickery and deceit in order to trash the reputations of entirely innocent people and even get them charged with criminal offences and put behind bars.
Now, at last, after a long career of exposing others – leading to more than 260 criminal prosecutions, it is claimed – Mahmood has himself finally been exposed as a liar who could well face perjury charges and end up in prison. His downfall came when a drugs trial involving the singer Tulisa Contostavlos collapsed after a judge concluded that Mahmood had attempted to persuade a witness to change his evidence and then lied about it under oath. The comments by Judge Alistair McCreath at Southwark Crown Court, London, this week vindicated Contostavlos, who insisted she had been entrapped by the reporter into appearing to promise to arrange a cocaine deal when in fact she had no criminal intent whatever. Mahmood had made his claims in a story for the Sun on Sunday, successor to the News of the World, closed down in 2011 by tycoon owner Rupert Murdoch after it was mired in controversy over phone-hacking.
Mahmood is known as the “Fake Sheikh” after one of his common disguises. In the words of a news report, “He would often dress up as a rich Arab to persuade the famous, gullible or criminal to divulge their secrets on tape via elaborate subterfuge.” His targets have included royalty, politicians, sports stars and celebrities, as well as “paedophiles, arms dealers…dodgy doctors, solicitors, pimps, judges, bent cops and even murderers” according to his book-cover blurb, which also colourfully adds that he has “been shot at by Albanian thugs, cursed by an African witch and even run over by a vicar”.
He has been suspended by the Sun pending an investigation of his own misdeeds.
It was in his “Fake Sheikh” guise, or rather a variation of it, that I was introduced to Mahmood at the Sablière naturist resort in the Ardèche region of southern France some 13 years ago. He was posing not as a sheikh, but as a skeikh’s aide, a “fixer” with a wide-ranging brief to keep his mega-rich Arab boss happy.
It is a story worth telling, I think, for the insights it affords into how a supposedly top-flight journalist – twice Reporter of the Year – goes about his dirty business. It may also disclose criminality the courts do not yet know about. I wrote the following narrative soon after the events unfolded, while everything was still fresh in my memory.
IT ALL STARTED when I unexpectedly found myself on holiday alone at the naturist resort after a friend was unable to join me as planned. I soon found myself in friendly company, though. A girl of about 18 with a cockney accent asked me the time. This was near the café by the swimming pool. When I told her it was good to hear an English voice amidst all the Dutch and French guests she said she was there with some friends and would I like to come over and meet them? They were having a drink outside the café, she said.
The girl introduced herself as Hannah and took me over to a couple of guys; one of them was Conrad, her boyfriend, and the other was Perry, his boss. We had a pleasant enough chat over a beer, nothing very consequential. Perry asked if I’d like to join them for dinner later in the nearby town of Barjac. They had a car and offered to pick me up from my caravan. I was happy to accept.
The evening went well enough. The blokes seemed a bit “laddish”, with jokes and banter. Perry was charming and quite witty. Hannah was rather quiet compared to earlier and only now did it strike me that they were far older than she was. Both her boyfriend and Perry were in their mid- to late-thirties. We were talking about the Arab world for reasons I’ll come to, including the fondness of men there for scent. Then the subject turned to jewelry and the fact that Hannah sports a tongue stud.
“What’s it like when you’re eating?” I said, “It looks as though it might be very uncomfortable.”
“Not for me it isn’t”, Conrad jumped in. “When she’s eating me it’s brilliant!”
I must have looked a bit taken aback because Perry chipped in: “Don’t worry about Hannah,” he said, “she’s totally unshockable.”
Her giggles told me this was true although I got slightly the sense that the guys were a bit inclined to take her for granted. It was though they felt she was a bit of a bimbo – there just to look pretty and keep her mouth shut except when “eating” her bloke.
If the conversation had been kept at Conrad’s level I might have found the evening an unpleasant drag. But Perry proved more interesting, especially as it seemed we had one factor in common: acquaintance with the Middle East. Despite the western name his dark features told me he could be from those parts. That appeared to be confirmed when, earlier in the day, I had asked how the three of them came to be travelling together. Perry had said he was an aide to a member of the Dubai royal family; Conrad was his assistant. I am well aware that many sheikhs travelling in Europe are inclined to let their hair down in the casinos (including at Blackpool, which will come into the story later) and fleshpots, so it came as no surprise to me when he said His Highness wanted to stay at a naturist resort. The aim of Perry’s current trip, he said, was to check out Sablière with this in mind. In particular he had been checking whether there were any other Arabs around, because any such presence would make it difficult for HH to pay a discreet incognito visit, and he also needed to check the suitability of Nîmes airport for HH’s private jet.
Nice work if you can get it, I thought, especially as his posh car and choice of restaurant appeared to indicate a generous expenses allowance. We talked a lot about the Arab world, especially in terms of a detailed exchange of notes about life in Qatar, where I had been working for seven years, and Dubai, another Gulf emirate. He was clearly as familiar with the latter as I with the former. It seems ironic in retrospect that with the only woman among us almost silent, Perry and I spent quite a bit of time talking about the changing role of women in Arab society, especially as regards developments in Qatar, with women being encouraged into higher education and allowed to stand as political candidates in the first ever elections.
At the end of a pleasant, if seemingly unremarkable evening, I was dropped off back at my caravan. And there, in the quietness of my reflections before hitting the hay, the penny finally dropped. Suddenly it dawned on me that my dinner companions were from the tabloid press. Not only that. They were, I knew, from the News of the World. I even knew the real name of the man calling himself “Perry”. I knew his name was Mazher Mahmood. I knew he was none other than the man behind the “Fake Sheikh” saga involving the Duchess of Wessex and Prince Edward.
Once the duchess came to mind the pieces fell into place. On that occasion, just a few months earlier, Mahmood had hired a vastly expensive suite at a top London hotel and contacted the duchess pretending to be – guess what – an aide to a royal prince in Dubai. He had tricked the duchess into indiscretions by saying the “prince” would be happy to pay Sophie and Edward (or rather the PR company they ran) if they would exploit their own royal name on his behalf.
Fortunately, I had said absolutely nothing compromising to Mahmood. Why would I? As far as I knew at the time, the three of them were naturists, which would imply a liberal attitude to nakedness but not to paedophilia. That’s something I was never going to talk about to complete strangers. Yet his article when it came out the following Sunday gave the impression I had “come out” as a paedophile.
[“Caught in the act”, News of the World, 5 August, 2001, credited to “Mazher Mahmood Investigations Editor, in Barjac, France”. There is no online version of the paper from those days. However, the indefatigable Ian Pace (see PIE spy, with my tabloid eye… ) has put the report on his website. It is the last item on a long page. The search term Barjac will get you quickly to the start. My original narrative continues below.]
Remember I said Blackpool would come into the story? His report said I had revealed plans to go ogling the kids on the beach there but didn’t think the scene would be as good as Sablière. The only true part of this is that when we had been talking about the hypocrisy of Arab Muslims who go gambling and whoring in Europe I had happened to mention that the casino at Blackpool has become a favourite destination for many of them in the UK. I did not say I was planning to go to Blackpool (which I was not). This was pure invention just like some of the things he put in the mouth of the Duchess of Wessex. She, for instance, was said to have called the Queen “horrid, horrid, horrid”, but when the News of the World was prevailed upon to produce their taped evidence of the conversation this quote was nowhere on it.
Oddly enough, “Perry” and the others had made no obvious effort to tempt me into indiscretions at all. Only one point provided them with an opening, when we had been talking about Arab vices and I had criticised the hypocrisy of these supposedly devout followers of Islam. Mahmood’s response was along the lines “True, Tom, but we all have vices, don’t we? What are yours then?”
He was smiling, of course, keeping it light. “None, I replied,” with equal levity, “I live the life of a saint!” After the inevitable sceptical chortling from my companions I added, “No, I mean it more or less. I lead a life of utterly boring respectability.” I guess after a straight bat response of that sort Mahmood decided any further probing would achieve nothing except to raise my suspicions.
But he actually needed nothing from me. He was getting a very nice, all-expenses-paid holiday in the sunshine combining business with pleasure. He knew he could simply fabricate what I did not reveal. And he knew I had neither the money nor the high reputation to make it worthwhile for me to sue. He would simply tell the story people apparently love to hear. All he really needed for credibility was a grainy long-lens photo to go with it.
Conrad was the man for the latter, I later learned. Conrad Brown, actually. He was also involved in the Duchess of Wessex case, so it seems he and Mahmood were an established double act. Brown took a picture captioned as me “taking a shower with a boy”. Even this was a lie. I did not know the young boy photographed near me, who it seems was merely passing by at the time the picture was taken.
To understand what happened it is necessary to know the location. There were two showerheads on opposite sides of a footbath at the entrance to the swimming pool. I was taking a shower in one of them. I was completely naked, like almost everyone else, so the picture when it appeared in the paper comically had a black rectangular “figleaf” covering my naughty bits – a huge one, actually, satisfyingly giving the impression there was much that needed covering! The boy, however, clearly has a towel round him so I imagine he was merely leaving the pool and not taking a shower at all. He had to come close to me because everyone had to enter and leave via the footbath, as at most public pools.
I said at the start that my story “may also disclose criminality the courts do not yet know about”. This must wait, in the time-honoured cliff-hanger phrase, for the next thrilling instalment! Watch out for it shortly at Heretic TOC!
For a neatly apocalyptic and satanic touch, they should have made it 666 arrests. Whatever, it’s a big number. UK readers will not need to be told what I am talking about, and it affects so many lives so deeply and tragically that arguably I should be making it my main topic. I refer to this awful news item: Police blitz on paedophiles leads to arrest of 660 suspects including doctors, teachers, Scout leaders and care workers
Unlike the Fake Sheikh news, though, I am not sure these arrests need much comment beyond the obvious i.e. Isn’t it terrible? Yes, it is, although I would just put it in perspective by reminding ourselves that Operation Ore, which commenced in 1999, led to 3,744 arrests. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this latest pogrom is that National Crime Agency deputy director general Phil Gormley said in a BBC broadcast, “The reality is we are not going to simply arrest our way out of this problem.” In the same broadcast, other contributors, including sex offender treatment specialist Lydia Guthrie, were saying quite interesting things, such as pointing out with some alarm that one third of those on the Sex Offender Register are now under 18, that not all offenders are the same, they are human beings, we need an intelligent conversation…
Are they going soft? Well, no, the arrests give their own harsh message. The implication seems to be that more anti-sexual propaganda and brainwashing is required – in addition to arrests, not instead of.