After Mazher Mahmood, aka the Fake Sheikh, was found guilty of Conspiracy to Pervert the Course of Justice this week, many of the reports relaying details of the trial and the verdict have described him as an “investigative journalist”, if they have given any description beyond “the king of sting”. For the Murdoch empire, this is a most convenient description. Because it does not cover the half of it.
Mazher Mahmood was, by the time his personal Wild West Show came to and end, no mere journalist. He was a confidante of the Murdochs’ management, and, it has been claimed to me, of Rupert Murdoch himself.
What Maz did, it seems he did with the implicit blessing of The Top Man, the probable knowledge of son James, and the approval of News UK’s recently reinstated CEO, the twinkle-toed yet domestically combative Rebekah Brooks.
His misdeeds were on the face of it deniable, but in reality it was very different. This can be seen from the first of many revelations published by Byline Media, which begin to prise the lid off what promises to be yet another highly toxic can of worms.
Maz began his career doing straight journalism; he soon graduated to more challenging assignments, genuinely ground-breaking investigations targeting drug gangs and arms dealers. At first, he eschewed the cult of celebrity, but when the money moved into that area, he moved effortlessly with it.
Mazher Mahmood not only went after celebrities. He became one himself.
Maz was not royalty. But he soon learned to act like he was, and thus the Fake Sheikh persona that he deployed to such effect in pursuing his stings. He was not from Saudi Arabia. But he pretended very convincingly that he was both Saudi and Royal.
And then there were The Dark Arts.
Maz told the Leveson Inquiry that he had never tasked a private detective. This, as his former boss Greg Miskiw has now explained, is because he had a chap to do that sort of thing for him - Miskiw got the spoofing, blagging and hacking arranged, sometimes using the services of Glenn Mulcaire.
What Miskiw does not tell is that Maz also knew he would have no problem, no interference from management, no objection to the huge budgets he ran up. This was partly because he delivered story after story. But it was also because he had a direct line to the top of the Murdoch organisation.
Christine Hart’s Byline article, in which she lifts the lid on Maz’ lavish expense-fuelled lifestyle, spells it out: “I quickly became aware that in the scheme of things - while Rebekah Brooks was the Red Queen - her right hand man and close confidante was not Andy Coulson, but the handsome and charismatic Fake Sheikh, Mazher Mahmood”.
That may cause some raising of eyebrows: after all, Coulson and Ms Brooks had an affair which went on for many years. But Ms Hart is absolutely right. Rebekah and Maz would speak several times a day. For some at the Screws, there were screaming tantrums, dressings-down, demands for improvement. But for Maz there was only sweet talk.
And what Ms Hart does not tell is that Maz manipulated his closeness to the top, just as he manipulated his colleagues. It has been put to me that if Maz didn’t get what he wanted from his boss, he would go to Rebekah. If Ms Brooks was for some reason not amenable to her pal, he’d go to James. And if James said no, he’d just go to Rupe.
That is why Mazher Mahmood is no mere functionary.
As Ms Hart put it on her first meeting with Maz, “Half way through the journey he rang his buddy Rebekah Brooks, who used her maiden name Wade then … It seemed that when I was with him, he spoke to Rebekah four or five times per day in the hushed tone of lovers … He and Brooks were very, very close. Chatting to each other in whispers, punctuated by laughter and promises to meet up later for drinks. His voice would go low and he would laugh and joke with her – the only time I saw a side of him he ever showed to anyone else. He spoke to her like an equal, but the rest of us were just his gofers and slaves”.
Mazher Mahmood was part of The Management.
And his trial confirmed that: it’s also been put to me that Maz got the same level of legal expertise and firepower lavished on his defence as his boss Ms Brooks. Better and more expensive lawyers than Andy Coulson. A full dress rehearsal of what would happen in the courtroom. Right down to the conclusion that they dare not allow him to give evidence.
That is why this is no mere run of the mill conviction, no common-or-garden reporter. Mazher Mahmood is the first from the top of the Murdoch tree to get guilty. His is a far more significant conviction than that of Andy Coulson.
Add to that the clutch of convictions that may be overturned, and the welter of civil claims that right now are being lined up.
The Murdoch mafiosi have lost one of their own. There may be more to come.